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‘Tuesday’ examines making friends with death

“Tuesday” (2023 production, 2024 release). Cast: Lola Petticrew, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Leah Harvey, Arinzé Kene. Director: Daina Oniunas-Pusić. Screenplay: Daina Oniunas-Pusić. Web site. Trailer.

Death. It’s a subject that many of us don’t want to deal with, let alone feel comfortable talking about. It can be especially difficult when it involves someone we care deeply about, particularly in a scenario like a parent having to prepare for the loss of a child. Yet death is the one fate we all ultimately share, so it’s not something we can conveniently try to avoid. Given that, then, this is an eventuality that we must all find a way to accept. It’s a process that might also unfold more readily if we make the effort to better understand it, ridding ourselves of misinterpretations about it so that we can view it in a more natural, more accessible light – in essence to learn how to make friends with it. That may not be easy, but it is possible, as illustrated through the whimsical and profound new cinematic fable, “Tuesday.”

Fifteen-year-old Tuesday (Lola Petticrew) is facing something no one her age should have to contend with – a terminal illness that’s closing in on her and shrinking the number of days ahead of her. She’s in a great deal of pain and has largely been relegated to the limited confines of the home she shares with her single mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Tuesday is alone much of the time, too, cared for by a visiting nurse, Billie (Leah Harvey), when Zora goes off to work. Or at least that’s what Tuesday has been led to believe.

In actuality, Zora leaves the house every day, but she’s not going to work; she has no job. Instead, she frequently spends her days visiting various resale shops seeking to sell household items as a means to raise money, presumably to pay for the medical and home health care expenses of her daughter. And, when she’s not doing that, she can be found holed up in a local café or sitting by herself in a neighborhood park, often until late in the day when she’s supposedly getting off work.

So why is Zora occupying her days like this? One might think that, as the mother of a terminally ill daughter, she’d want to be spending as much time with her as possible, particularly with the clock running out. But she doesn’t, because the prospect of losing Tuesday is too much to bear. The pain of the looming inevitability is simply too great, so she seeks to put it out of her mind by avoiding these circumstances as much as possible. She even ignores Tuesday’s calls to her on her cell phone, letting them go to voicemail. However, Zora soon finds that, no matter how much she might try to run away from this situation, she can’t hide from the truth.

Zora discovers this one day when she arrives home late. She’s greeted by Billie, who tactfully but honestly informs Zora that she needs to be spending more time with her daughter. Billie notes that Tuesday’s demeanor has changed, growing progressively weaker and more reconciled to her fate, suggesting that her remaining time is growing short – and that Zora needs to use that time to tie up any loose ends between them. Zora is incensed at the suggestion and screams at Billie to stay out of her personal business (hardly a realistic demand under these conditions), but the kindly nurse says that it’s time for Zora to step up and be a mother to her daughter while she still has the chance.

Terminally ill 15-year-old Tuesday (Lola Petticrew, left) attempts to help her grief-stricken mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, right), come to terms with her impending demise, as seen in the whimsical and profound new cinematic fable, “Tuesday,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Kevin Baker, courtesy of A24.

So how is it that Tuesday has reached this resigned frame of mind? It happens when a mysterious visitor appears in her bedroom – Death, having assumed the form, of all things, of a large, talking, shape-shifting parrot (voiced by Arinzé Kene). Interestingly enough, Tuesday doesn’t seem especially shocked at his arrival, nor does she come across as particularly afraid. In large part, given her condition, she knew Death was coming. In fact, in light of her deteriorating health, she quietly welcomed his arrival to take her away from her suffering.

Death is admittedly somewhat surprised by her reaction. He’s more accustomed to resistance, fear and denial when he makes an appearance to those on the verge of crossing over. And, even though he’s well acquainted with the cries for mercy from the many who welcome his arrival to take them away from their pain, he often expects these other anguished emotions to accompany these desperate appeals. Needless to say, this mission places a big responsibility on Death’s shoulders, and it has clearly worn heavily on him, too, especially when he’s called upon to offer some measure of comfort to the dying at the trying time of their passing.

What’s even more surprising to Death, though, is the compassion that Tuesday shows to him when he greets her. She can sense the pain he has had to bear and is willing to extend to him the same kind of empathy that he offers to others. For instance, she gets him to talk, something that he admits he hasn’t done for some time. In addition, he’s filthy, his feathers having literally become coated in the despair he’s encountered when visiting others at the time of their transition. Tuesday accommodates him by drawing a bath for him, a gesture he accepts willingly and enthusiastically, enabling Death to become renewed in a way not unlike what he is about to offer her.

This experience benefits both Tuesday and Death. They forge a connection, one based on mutual support and respect. One could even call it making friends with death, as both of them are about to get something out of their relationship that they each strongly need and desire.

However, when Tuesday relates what happened – and what is about to happen – to Zora, she can’t handle it. And, when Death finally reveals himself to Zora, she lashes out in a fury, viciously attacking the parrot in hopes that doing so will prevent what’s about to unfold. But, like all of her other efforts to forestall the inevitable, Zora’s assault solves nothing. She may temporarily be able to keep Death from performing his duty, but she can’t forever eliminate the mission he’s been charged with carrying out.

Terminally ill 15-year-old Tuesday (Lola Petticrew, left) receives a mysterious visitor – Death (voiced by Arinzé Kene, right) – who arrives in the form of a large, talking, shape-shifting parrot in writer-director Daina Oniunas-Pusić’s impressive debut feature, “Tuesday,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Kevin Baker, courtesy of A24.

To make matters worse, by preventing Death from fulfilling his task, circumstances in the wider world start going askew, taking on widespread apocalyptic proportions. Countless souls everywhere, including Zora’s own neighborhood, begin crying out in anguish, frequently pleading with Zora and Tuesday for help. But what can they do?

Not until Zora gets a taste of what Death does can she fully appreciate his purpose for being. She comes to understand Death’s mission and why the world needs it. This includes Tuesday’s need for it, too, and why Zora must embrace it if both she and her daughter ever hope to find peace. But can Zora make the last step in that big leap of acceptance? And, if so, how will it impact her and her future, both personally and in the world at large?

Without a doubt, death is a frightening prospect to many of us. To a great degree, this likely has to do with the fact that it represents the greatest unknown that most of us will ever face. And, for us, as a species that generally doesn’t like change, that kind of unpredictability scares the you-know-what out of us. However, is that reason enough to let the concept keep us relentlessly paralyzed in place? That’s something this film attempts to address and dispel.

Much of what drives this fear is a lack of understanding, and those conditions, in turn, lead to the formation of beliefs in line with that thinking. We fear what we don’t understand, which, consequently, leads to resistance of examining, let alone accepting, the idea. And that realization is important given the role that our beliefs – including those based on fear – play in dictating how our existence unfolds, a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these notions are responsible for shaping the nature of our reality. It’s not clear how many of us are aware of this school of thought, but a lack of familiarity with it and its principles keeps us from understanding how it works – and in all of its permutations, including the manifestation of what happens when we embark on our journey into the great unknown of what occurs after we leave physical existence behind us.

Visiting nurse Billie (Leah Harvey, left) attends to the needs of terminally ill 15-year-old Tuesday (Lola Petticrew, right) when her grief-stricken mother leaves home each day to go to work at a nonexistent job in the whimsical and profound new cinematic fable, “Tuesday.” Photo by Kevin Baker, courtesy of A24.

Through Death’s various encounters with those he comes to claim, viewers witness a range of reactions, from abject fright to pleas for mercy to attempts at bargaining to expressions of welcoming, though skeptical, relief. And it’s because of those typical responses that Tuesday’s reaction is so unusual to Death. She’s surprisingly accepting of Death’s appearance at her bedside. However, considering how much discomfort she is in, it’s understandable how a release from the captivity of the unendurable existence in which she finds herself could be seen as a fortuitous change.

What’s more, Tuesday’s compassion for Death’s circumstances is even more surprising, even to the messenger himself. He’s accustomed to the more typical reactions to his arrival in the lives of others, so it’s naturally bewildering that he would encounter someone concerned with his well-being. It’s possible that Tuesday senses the reason for his arrival and the relief it will provide, so there’s a part of her that believes in returning the favor, providing him with some much-needed compassion, something he likely almost never receives when he makes an appearance elsewhere. That sort of kindness is enough for Death to grant Tuesday’s wish of the gift of time to be able to square up matters with her mother.

In striking contrast to Tuesday’s acceptance of Death’s arrival, there’s Zora’s consuming fear and anger over what’s about to happen. She’s obviously not suffering the same kind of physical pain as her daughter, so she likely doesn’t share Tuesday’s belief that the messenger’s arrival could grant her the peace she so dearly seeks. Instead, Zora is bought in to more conventional notions about death, such as a fear of the unknown and the need to fight against it at all costs. But do Zora’s beliefs suit Tuesday? Based on her condition, it would seem not. Rather, these beliefs reflect Zora’s insecurities and lack of understanding. They may be appropriate for her mindset, but they’re not doing anything for Tuesday other than prolonging her pain. Is that fair to her? Most of us would probably say no, but, if the circumstances are ever to change, Zora must come to understand this.

A big part of resolving this issue rests with Zora needing to grasp why she believes as she does: What’s behind her fear of death? What’s driving her obsession with keeping Tuesday alive at all costs (especially given that she can barely bring herself to spend time in her company)? And why is Zora so resistant to the idea of being on her own once Tuesday is no longer in the picture? She sincerely needs to examine these questions if she ever hopes to get answers to find her own peace.

In her best-ever onscreen work, Julia Louis-Dreyfus turns in an engaging performance as Zora, the grief-stricken mother of a terminally ill 15-year-old daughter, in the whimsical and profound new cinematic fable, “Tuesday,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Kevin Baker, courtesy of A24.

To up the stakes on these issues, Zora soon finds herself in the midst of a world that’s falling apart around her. The suffering of others becomes pervasive, no matter how much Zora tries to surround herself and Tuesday with some kind of invisible protective bubble. But even those measures can’t prevent the encroachment of an existence filled with so much pain and anguish.

This experience helps to open Zora’s eyes to see what can happen when such all-consuming suffering closes in on her. It begins to give her an appreciation for what Tuesday may be going through. In fact, comparisons of these events to the apocalypse begin to shed new light on the true nature of such a much-feared event, namely, that struggling to keep death at bay at any cost is the apocalypse itself. It’s something that prevents transition and transformation (especially in times of great need) and inherently goes against nature, with the ongoing anguish that comes from it being what results. In many respects, it’s what Tuesday is going through writ large. This, of course, again raises the question, is it fair for any of us to continue to put someone through that because it goes against our own beliefs and sensibilities?

This realization helps to put Zora on the path to understanding. But what really seals the deal for her is the opportunity to get a firsthand sense of what Death is able to do for others in pain. Seeing the relief and peace that come over others at last helps Zora appreciate what passing on can accomplish for those under such anguishing circumstances. Being able to assist in that process can be rewarding, too, as it removes the infirm from their pain. What a gift that can be, both for the recipient and the facilitator. But, as noted earlier, even with this new awareness, is Zora capable of bestowing the same gift upon Tuesday?

Taking this next step requires a belief that has more to do with Zora than with Tuesday, as it harkens back to the aforementioned questions that she must address for herself if she ever hopes to reach a definitive conclusion about herself and what it means for her outlook on losing her daughter. Zora now has the tools to help her proceed with this, but can she pull them all together in a cohesive perspective that enables her to move forward? It’s likely something that’s going to require a big leap of faith on her part, one that’s presumably pursued in the hope that everything will turn out fine for all concerned. That may appear to be almost as much of an unknown as one’s fundamental understanding of the nature of death. But, if anyone ever hopes to make sense of all this in the end, it’s a step we must all take for ourselves – and hope that we can live with whatever outcome arises from it. The more we can learn how to make friends with this process, the easier and more rewarding it’s likely to be for all of us.

Terminally ill 15-year-old Tuesday (Lola Petticrew) spends much of her time at home alone, save for her visiting nurse, because her single mother is unable to cope with her impending passing, as seen in writer-director Daina Oniunas-Pusić’s whimsical and profound new cinematic fable, “Tuesday.” Photo by Kevin Baker, courtesy of A24.

Fables often make for intriguing storytelling and engaging cinematic experiences. And such is the case for the debut feature from writer-director Daina Oniunas-Pusić, a whimsical yet profound tale about how to make friends with death. In doing so, the film gets into some deeply meaningful material, presenting insights that most of us probably have never considered, let alone explored, shedding an entirely new light on the essence of death, as well as the tremendous burden it has placed on its ornithological messenger. The result is a truly moving story, one that deftly mixes joy and sadness, pathos and humor, and anger and sympathy, not only for mother and daughter, but also for Death itself and the wider world of which we’re all a part. The narrative certainly gives viewers much to contemplate, introducing notions that might well raise eyebrows and perhaps even ruffle a few feathers (no pun intended) for those accustomed to more conventional interpretations of this subject. But, in the end, the picture provides a fresher, more mature take on these concepts than typically seen elsewhere. Admittedly, the pacing sags a touch in the middle, and the flow of the story may seem somewhat strange or a tad unfocused at times. What’s more, some may question the reasoning behind why Death appears as a talking parrot (but, then again, why should it necessarily take some of the more familiarly gruesome forms we have seen in other stories, such as the grim reaper, for instance?). The film features fine performances, most notably the best screen work Louis-Dreyfus has ever turned in. It also respectfully recalls material presented previously in such perceptively prescient tales as the moving Australian comedy-drama “Baby Teeth” (2019) and the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nothing in the Dark” (1962) featuring a very young Robert Redford. Still, the premise may strike some as odd, absurd or implausible, but, then, when have fables, fairy tales or opera librettos ever faithfully stuck to the tried and true? Suspend your disbelief for this one, and sit back and immerse yourself in what it has to say. You may never look at death the same way ever again. The film is currently playing theatrically.

Embracing the unknown is challenging in almost any context, but that’s particularly true for many of us when it comes to a subject with the magnitude of death. However, since there’s no escaping it, we might as well learn how to accept it, given that attempts at evading it are ultimately fruitless. And worrying about it solves nothing, accomplishing little more than wasting precious time that we should be spending on enjoying life. “Tuesday” provides us with a valuable lesson in learning how to deal with this inevitability. And, if we think about death as something that comes to us in a form as seemingly unthreatening as a big talking parrot, we just might view it as more of a friend than a foe. After all, if we’re to be escorted across the threshold of this world by a winged emissary such as this, maybe the experience will allow us to take flight as we move on to the next step.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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