SAN ANTONIO — Ten years ago, a young Jennifer Lawrence introduced herself to the world (at least, those in the world who hadn’t yet marveled at her Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone” turn) when she stepped into the shoes of Katniss Everdeen, a new-age YA fiction heroine into whom Lawrence breathed raw strength with a presence molded by the dystopian anxieties of “The Hunger Games.” A parade of fascinating young stars – the Chalaments, Kaluuyas and Pughs of the world – has since marched through Hollywood, perhaps making it easier to submit to the reality that Lawrence was now seemingly stuck on a carousel of either chatty performances in disappointing prestige dramas or check-clearing participation in major franchises.
In this sense, at least, Lawrence’s “Causeway” sees the actress coming full circle. Through Lynsey, a U.S. Army engineer on the physical and mental mend stateside following an ambush in Afghanistan, the actress follows her most bombastic performance with her quietest since Katniss. If her bombastic doomsday-proselytizing in “Don’t Look Up” was a summation of the era that saw Lawrence misguided by auteurs who’ve lost their luster, “Causeway” (an A24 production now streaming via Apple TV+) might mark the beginning of another: A veteran actress tapping into newfound range to elevate the work of burgeoning filmmakers, and without the crutch of pre-established narratives formed around a blockbuster’s source material or a project’s glitzy adornments.
“Causeway” isn’t an adaptation and it certainly isn’t glitzy, though if you like you can probably twist your viewing lens so that first-time director Lila Neugebauer’s deliberate, hyperhushed drama follows a grown-up Katniss ravaged by her participation in the Hunger Games. But Lynsey has no designs on uprooting institutions, nor does Neugebauer set out to fan political flames like “Breaking,” another 2022 drama centered around a veteran’s struggles upon returning home. That Lynsey seeking her doctor’s stamp of approval to return overseas merely forms the narrative backdrop of “Causeway” is one indication of the story that’s actually being told—one about how rehabilitation is a tightrope walk, whether it’s from brain injury or recent personal history.
The movie begins on some shaky ground. An observation-heavy first act risks defining Lynsey by her loss of basic motor functions, a percussive montage showing her struggling to walk or even brush her teeth without help. But even in these initial scenes Lawrence shows off a new dimension to herself as an actress; she embraces a mysterious quietude that could be as much fueled by contemplation as Lynsey’s inability to be immediately present. Her dialogue is sparse in the early going, which provides a challenge of sorts to the moviegoer familiar with her verbose turns in movies like “Don’t Look Up,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”
That stillness eventually comes to take on a range of its own. As “Causeway” progresses, we see Lynsey return to her New Orleans home and befriend an auto shop worker, James (Brian Tyree Henry, typically excellent and thus so here) with his own barbed-wire past, and the script blooms into a chronicle about how independence can’t always be found in isolation (it certainly isn’t happenstance that the setting is a city overcoming its own anvil-weighted trauma). Neugebauer emphasizes the dirt under the fingernails of her storytelling, but more urgently she shows how Lynsey and James are two people who would rather pull on gloves than clean them out. It’s a neat metaphor when the manager at Lynsey’s new pool-cleaning gig tells her that “you can tell a lot about a person by what’s in their pool drains,” but in the moment you can also sense the overly careful script (by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders, all first-time screenwriters) guiding the audience where it wills them to instead of letting Lawrence and Henry’s performances speak for themselves.
Because what strong performances they are, particularly in the case of the latter. “Causeway” is ultimately too zeroed in on Lynsey to function fully as a dual-character study, but even so Henry is the movie’s north star. He enters and immediately reveals a more grounded film that, at 90 minutes, lacks the narrative machinery to say anything new about the experience of American soldiers. What Henry’s James helps us realize is that “Causeway’s” chief concern is both more universal and less cleanly defined; less a project of intricate plot and more about spontaneous sources of friendship. As an amputee who only acts like he’s made peace with moving through life at his own pace, a resentment biting at the edges of James provides its own subdued mystery. Lawrence, meanwhile, has rarely felt more intentional in her physicality here – her head bobs sometimes when she walks, as if she’s barely keeping it above water – but in the occasional moments where her performance feels a bit too calculated, her screen partner anchors their characters’ growing bond in a history that, if not shared, bears similarly shaped scars of withheld guilt.
There are glimpses of emotional complexity in the performances of these two stars in a movie that’s ultimately too fleeting to truly get into the muck of things. For instance, there’s a clear element in social class differences “Causeway” underscores by juxtaposing the lavish backyard pools Lynsey cleans with the blow-up one she and her mother barely fit into together, but it never becomes much more than that. The suggestion itself is hardly enough to graft new themes onto scenes of Lynsey and James passing afternoons and slowly opening themselves up to each other, but for a movie whose core relationship unspools – deliberately, predictably but life-affirmingly – in the in-between spaces of a major American city, maybe the suggestion is all we need.
"Causeway" is rated R for some language, sexual references and drug use. It's now streaming on Apple TV+. Runtime: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Starring by Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Danny Wolohan
Directed by Lila Neugebauer; written by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders
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