Tag Archives: C+

CAUSEWAY

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+

Grade: C+

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.         

CALL JANE

Producers: Robbie Brenner, David Wulf, Kevin McKeon, Lee Broda, Claude Amadeo and Michael D’Alto   Director: Phyllis Nagy   Screenplay: Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi   Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku, Cory Michael Smith, Grace Edwards, John Magaro, Geoffrey Cantor, Aida Turturro, Bianca D’Ambrosio, Bruce MacVittie, John Rothman, Rebecca Henderson, Maia Scalia, Sean King and Alison Jaye   Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Grade: C+

Given that it deals with an underground organization of women trying to arrange abortions for women in pre-Roe vs. Wade America, “Call Jane” often manifests a surprisingly upbeat tone.  The camaraderie of the activists is sometimes riven by disagreement—at one point the lone black woman (Wunmi Mosaku) challenges the bases on which those to be helped are selected—but the sense of solidarity among the members is palpable, and there’s an air of exuberance to their efforts except at its darkest moments.  And there is no consideration of the moral and ethical issues surrounding abortion—the approach is unambiguously, even proscriptively, pro-choice. Moreover the ending—with the announcement of the Roe decision—is positively triumphant, which, given the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision, now carries an ironic subtext.

That’s one of the narrative problems with the film, which curiously skirts the very real dangers the group faced.  There are a few mentions of the need to maintain good relations with “the mob,” for example, but no explanation beyond that, and the one instance in which a policeman (John Magaro) enters the scene turns out to be much less menacing than initially suggested.  Indeed, one might think that it represents a rather cheap attempt to engender a bit of suspense.

An even more serious drawback is the decision to strip down what was a collaborative action to something more singular, and to do in a fictional way.  At the center of Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi‘s screenplay is Joy (Elizabeth Banks), the wife of lawyer Will (Chris Messina).  They have a teen daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), and are now looking forward to the birth of their second child.  Sadly, after she has a fainting spell, Joy undergoes a series of tests and her physician (Geoffrey Cantor) informs the couple that she has a serious heart condition that will endanger her life if she continues the pregnancy.  He suggests a therapeutic abortion, but that procedure requires the approval of the hospital board, and the all-male directors, led by two stuffily dismissive types (Bruce MacVittie and John Rothman), summarily decline the request.

Joy decides to seek out an unauthorized abortion entirely on her own, but rejects going through with it at places that look shabby and unsafe.  Eventually a street notice takes her to the Janes, where Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, as rough and tough as she is prim and controlled in the recent “The Good House”) presides over an operation that, rather improbably, depends on only one practitioner, a capable but somewhat sleazy fellow named Dean (Cory Michael Smith).  Initially apprehensive, Joy finally goes through with the operation, masking it at home as a miscarriage.

Not long afterward Joy receives a call from Virginia, asking her to drive a young woman to the organization’s apartment for the procedure.  Joy tries to decline, but feels a sense of obligation, and soon she’s become a full member of the collective, especially good at helping to calm patients down so that Dean can complete their procedures.  She eventually becomes convinced she can perform Dean’s function herself, after investigating his background and what the process entails.  That’s only the start of the activists becoming even more directly involved as a group.

Meanwhile Joy’s domestic life changes.  Will is frustrated by her long absences—supposedly to art classes, though there’s no evidence of her work in them—and is tempted to fill the time with their widowed neighbor Lana (Kate Mara, in a reserved, enigmatic performance).  Nor is Charlotte unaware that something’s off.  Eventually the visit from that cop brings everything into the open.

But rather than continuing the story from that point, “Call Jane” abruptly shifts to 1973, with Virginia, Joy and their colleagues celebrating the Roe decision.  Virginia’s speech mentions raids and Will’s help in mounting legal defenses, but none of that is dramatized.  Instead the film just ends with a victory lap that, in view of recent setbacks, has proven to be premature.

That does, however, add a topical twist to the movie, since it’s apparent that the work of the Janes might now have to be resumed in a different context, and in a different way. There are gaps one wishes had been filled—Aida Turturro, for instance, plays a nun who’s a member of the Janes, but she remains a peripheral figure whose habit gets more consideration than her motives, and the Lana subplot feels tacked on for soapy effect, and then is promptly forgotten—but the acting is good overall, with Banks convincingly tremulous as an ordinary housewife caught up in a situation she could never have imagined being thrust into, and gaining confidence and certainty along the way, and Weaver making Virginia a steely figure who’s nonetheless willing to consider criticism of her leadership.  (One wishes her background had been given some filling-out).  Messina hasn’t much to work with, but struggles to flesh out the shallow conception of Will, and Smith gives Dean a creepiness appropriate to his shady doings; among the other “Janes,” Mosaku stands out for her intensity.

Production designer Jona Tochet and costumer Julie Weiss have worked hard to provide convincing period detail (the story starts in 1968, as an introductory scene referring to the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention of that year establishes); the clothes fit the period, as do the cars scrupulously chosen for the sequences on the road).  And while the Hartford, Connecticut locations might not completely persuade us of late sixties Chicago, cinematographer Greta Zozula, employing a gritty, often dark visual palette, makes them fairly plausible.   Isabella Summers’ score is spare, and except for the missing pieces in the script, Peter McNulty’s editing is reasonably smooth.

Those who would like a more historically complete—and expansive—treatment of the Jane Collective are directed to the HBO documentary “The Janes,” which of course takes a much more sober approach than Nagy’s film.  It makes a useful complement—some would say corrective—and is available on HBO Max.  And, of course, anyone wanting a politically and philosophically “balanced” treatment of the continuing debate over abortion should look elsewhere.  But on its own, admittedly limited terms, “Call Jane” fills its goal of celebrating the work of a group of women committed to fighting for a right denied them in the sixties—and would undoubtedly feel they must now fight for again.