Producers: Helen Gladders, Ivana MacKinnon and Oliver Roskill   Director: Daina O. Pusić   Screenplay: Daina O. Pusić   Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lola Petticrew, Leah Harvey and Arinzé Kene   Distributor: A24

Grade: B

Death takes an unexpected holiday—and a decidedly unusual form—in Croatian writer-director Daina Oniunas-Pusić’s weird but highly imaginative debut feature, a portrait of maternal desperation over a daughter’s terminal illness whose tone ricochets between poignant drama and darkly humorous fantasy.

In a no-holds-barred performance practically designed to demonstrate her range, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Zora, whose teen daughter Tuesday (Lola Petticrew) spends most of her day in bed, breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank.  Zora leaves her under the care of a nurse (Leah Harvey) who looks after her while Zora goes off to work.  Actually, though, she only pretends to spend the day at a job.  Actually she wanders through London, sitting in a café or eating lunch on a park bench while ignoring any calls from home.  She occasionally tends to the business of selling off household items—furniture and bric-a-brac, like some stuffed rats dressed up in clerical garb she unloads at a taxidermy shop, to pay for Tuesday’s treatment.

She’s not the only creature roaming the city, however.  So is Death, which flies from dying person to dying person, ending their pain—some welcoming the release, others bitterly resisting or simply bewildered.  But Death doesn’t have the usual appearance of a Grim Reaper; it’s a parrot that can change size from monstrously huge to tiny, and, we soon learn, can speak in a halting guttural voice provided by Arinzé Kene that sounds so raw, the bird explains, because it has been unused for so long.

This is, of course, no ordinary parrot.  In the film’s opening we see it flying to earth (or remembering that flight) as it sits, a microscopic thing in the eye of a person whose life has just ended before hearing the plea of another who needs the relief it can provide by gently waving a wing over the individual’s face.  It later describes its own birth from a dark void, sighing over its lonely, endless mission.

Now, of course, it comes to Tuesday’s bedside, and the girl treats it with such grace—she even fills the sink with water so that the bird can bathe in it and wash off the grime that’s presumably come to cover it over what might be an eternity of labor–that Death speaks to her, and accedes to her request that she be given a short reprieve so that she can say a proper goodbye to her mother.

When her mother returns and Tuesday explains who the parrot is, however, Zora reacts with fury, trying to prevent Death from taking her daughter.  The extreme to which she goes won’t be described here; suffice it to say that it takes a form much more violent than trapping Death in a tree, as Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa does in “On Borrowed Time.” But its absence from the world leads to near apocalyptic chaos, and Zora will be compelled to deal with her maternal denial and face up to the inevitability of Tuesday’s death, however painful doing so might be.

Both Louis-Dreyfus and Petticrew deliver powerful, if radically different, performances in what is, in human terms, basically a two-hander, the former wildly passionate and the latter beatifically serene.  But there’s a third major character here—the avian harbinger of death, nameless but as vividly rendered as the others, thanks to the visual effects supervised by Mike Stillwell and Andrew Simmonds, the extraordinary vocal work of Kene, and the evocative sound design (rustling feathers, clacking talons) of Gunnar Oskarsson.  Harvey adds notes of sympathy and confusion as Nurse Billie, and while the remaining supporting cast offer little more than cameos, all are fine.

So are the non-effect technical contributions from production designer Laura Ellis Cricks, costumer Jo Thompson and cinematographer Alexis Zabé, even if the juxtaposition of CGI and live action is not always ideal.  Arttu Salmi’s editing employs some raggedness to accentuate the dramatic and comic moments (as well as the protracted physical confrontation between Zora and the macaw) with uneven result, but Anna Meredith’s score adds to the drastic changes in emotional temperature.

One can quibble over some of the questions Pusić elects to leave unanswered, or even unaddressed, here—not just about the parrot but about the domestic circumstances of Zora and Tuesday.  And the mixture of antic comedy and harrowing horror at times fails to gel.  But one can’t help but be impressed by the combination of light and dark, fancy and profundity Pusić achieves here, and look forward to her future work.