Fans of Jennifer Lawrence’s more intimate and subdued work (i.e. “Winters Bone”) will probably love her latest film “Causeway”, a moving low-key drama that offers an honest and unvarnished look at working through trauma. It’s a remarkable feature film debut from director Lila Neugebauer who ushers this soulful character study along with a confident control. Yet she also knows when to simply be still, step back, and lean on her terrific actors. The results are pretty great.
Working from a script by co-writers Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel, and Ottessa Moshfegh, Neugebauer navigates the film’s themes of trauma, guilt, remorse, loneliness, and the struggle to cope through two seemingly rudderless characters, each marked by their own painful tragedies. While their story maintains a serious tone, Neugebauer doesn’t wallow in their misery. Instead she unpacks it, not by force, but through the unlikely yet revealing friendship that blossoms on screen.
Lawrence plays Lynsey, an American soldier who suffers a serious brain injury during her tour in Afghanistan. She returns to the States, but before going home to New Orleans she’ll have to undergo rehab. She’s looked after by a home health worker named Sharon (a wonderful Jayne Houdyshell) who helps her with once simple tasks such as standing on her own, taking off her jacket, brushing her teeth, or writing her name. Add to it severe headaches, memory loss, and sudden panic attacks. Lynsey is in a bad way.
But over time she begins to get her strength back and is eventually allowed to go home to continue her recovery. But for Lynsey, returning home comes with its own trauma. And against the better judgement of those around her, all she wants is to be redeployed. “I need to get back to work,” she says with an unconvincing confidence. But that will require her New Orleans neurologist, Dr. Lucas (the always great Stephen McKinley Henderson) to sign a waiver which isn’t something he’s in a hurry to do.
At home Lynsey has a cold relationship with her mother Gloria (Linda Emond), who at first seems selfish and insensitive, but who we later learn isn’t quite as prickly. There’s clearly some thorny family history, but we only get allusions to it, a choice that at different times works both for and against the story. In one sense, it keeps the movie very much in the moment by not wandering off into loads of backstory. In another way, it shortchanges one of the film’s key relationships and left me wanting to know more about the mother and daughter tension.
To help pass the time (and stay away from home), Lynsey takes a job cleaning pools. On her way to work one day, her old 1985 Chevy Scottsdale pickup blows a gasket. She ends up taking it to a local mechanic named James (Brian Tyree Henry), a fellow wounded soul bearing the weight of his own painful past. The majority of the movie centers on the unexpected friendship that develops between these two struggling individuals. Over time they discover they have a lot in common, and they find spending time together to be mutually therapeutic.
Rather than being plot-driven, “Causeway” is all about the characters and the healing that can come from having someone to spend time with who understands your pain. For that reason, the performances are crucial, and what we get from Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry is staggering. Both deliver textured and nuanced work that conveys vulnerability and quiet anguish. For Lawrence it’s a naturalistic return to form, while Henry continues to define himself as a skilled and strikingly versatile actor.
How you react to “Causeway” may come down to how much you care about the characters. There’s no story hook that grabs you. There’s no big dramatic climax. There’s no surprise twist at the end. Instead, we simply follow this young woman who masks her pain but finds the strength to deal with it through the empathy of another. “I’m going to be fine,” Lynsey says at one point. By the end we still don’t know if she’s right. But the film offers us hope. And as someone who did care for Lynsey and James, that’s all I was hoping for. “Causeway” is now streaming on Apple TV+.