Producers: Jennifer Lawrence and Justin Ciarrocchi Director: Lila Neugebauer Screenplay: Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Jayne Houdyshell, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Harvard, Fred Weller, Sean Carvajal, Will Pullen, Joshua Hull and Neal Huff Distributor: A24/Apple+
Jennifer Lawrence has taken a breather recently—since “Red Sparrow” in 2018, she’s appeared only in Adam McKay’s star-studded, heavy-handed political satire “Don’t Look Up”—and her return to the screen is a much more intimate, soft-grained affair. She plays Lynsey, a soldier seriously wounded in the Afghanistan war who, like Channing Tatum’s Briggs in “Dog,” is determined to be medically certified as ready to go back to the battlefield.
For Lynsey, an army engineer who was the victim of an IED, that first means enduring months of residence with a gentle caregiver named Sarah (Jayne Houdyshell), grueling physical therapy to recover the use of her limbs, and continuing treatment by Dr. Lucas (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a physician as concerned with her mental state as her physical rehabilitation and very precise in prescribing meds to address her continuing symptoms.
It also means returning to New Orleans and trying to reconnect with her mother Gloria (Linda Emond), an office worker with a very active social calendar and an attitude toward her daughter that only sporadically turns from businesslike to garrulously affectionate. Lynsey will also have to visit her brother Justin (Russell Harvard) in prison—a meeting that turns out to be surprisingly poignant, because of a detail revealed only at the last moment—but that reunion comes very late in her (perhaps temporary) return to civilian life.
The most important relationship she has, however, turns out to be an accidental one—with James (Brian Tyree Henry), a big, easygoing mechanic she meets when her old truck breaks down on her way to the job she’s secured as a pool cleaner. He takes the truck into his shop and gives her a ride home, during which they develop a pleasant rapport. That’s just the beginning of what can be called a beautiful friendship.
James, as it happens, is suffering from a traumatic experience too—a car crash in which he lost a leg, and something even more precious to him. Now he lives alone in a big old house and, as they get to know one another better, invites her to move in—not for romance, but simple companionship.
It’s the connection that develops between Lynsey and James that’s the emotional center of “Causeway.” You might not be surprised to learn that it proves to be, after some false starts and stops, what saves them from the effects of not just the lingering pain of their physical injuries but the emotional scars their experiences left. Lawrence is a mite recessive beside the more ostentatious Henry, but the two stars play their scenes together in a gentle, understated manner that can be halting but at least keeps the film from stumbling into maudlin melodrama.
Neophyte Lila Neugebauer’s direction is prosaic, but a few other performances are also noteworthy. Emond doesn’t hold back as Gloria and Harvard makes the most of his single scene as Justin, while both Houdyshell and Henderson bring a sense of professional concern to the medical professionals. The rest of the supporting cast have little to do, but do it well enough. The look of the film is pretty pallid. Jack Fisk’s production design is merely functional—no New Orleans glitz here—and Diego Garcia’s cinematography is band, with grays predominating. The editing by Robert Frazen and Lucian Johnston lets the actors take their time, not always to the film’s benefit.
The result is a film that gives Lawrence the opportunity to return to her roots in independent filmmaking—she made her first mark, after all, in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” in 2010. “Causeway,” unfortunately, isn’t in the same league as that remarkable film. Though its heart is in the right place, this picture doesn’t probe the psyches of its characters with sufficient depth to hit home as “Bone” did.