While Causeway is positioned as an intimate account of the arduous return home from Afghanistan of a wounded US Army engineer, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Brian Tyree Henry’s soulful work brings out richer shades in Lawrence’s guarded stoicism and vice versa. Debut director Lila Neugebauer surrounds herself with top recruits from her New York stage background to shape this melancholic reflection on trauma and trust against the sleepy backdrop of working-class New Orleans.
Neugebauer made a name for himself over the past decade with sharp theater work, most notably her compelling staging of Sarah DeLappe’s the wolves, about a girls’ high school soccer team; the Edward Albee Diptych At home in the zoo; and the fragmented character study of Tracy Letts Mary Page Marlowe. She made an assured Broadway debut with Kenneth Lonergan’s revival in 2018 The Waverly Gallerywho directed an all-star cast including Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen and Michael Cera.
It comes down to
Small but satisfying.
The sensitivity, delicate modulation of tone and skillful ensemble work that distinguished these stage productions is evident in A24’s Causeway, which marks the first screenplay by noted novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, co-written with newcomers Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders. It’s a small-scale film that many might call ambitious, favoring delicate observation over big emotional payoffs. But the humanistic virtues should register with Apple TV+ viewers.
Lawrence plays Lindsay, an army engineer specializing in water systems, who is forced to undergo a grueling physical and mental rehabilitation program for a brain injury and impaired motor skills after her vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. She receives nurturing attention from compassionate VA health care worker Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell), who warns her not to rush her recovery and tells her that reassignment is a bad idea. But Lindsay is stubborn; she checks out earlier than advised and takes the bus home to New Orleans, determined not to stay there long.
Lindsay returns to a messy house with no food to discover that her single mother had shaken Gloria (Linda Emond) the day she was supposed to return, an indication of her general unreliability. Gradually, the pieces of an unhappy upbringing come together, including the grief of watching her brother Justin (Russell Harvard, in a single beautiful scene towards the end) ruin his life with drugs. All of this explains why she is so eager to return to active duty, despite warnings from her neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) that stopping her meds will put her at high risk for seizures and chronic depression.
The muted footage of the film could be more interesting, but it gives a good feel for the low-income neighborhood of New Orleans where Lindsay grew up, as opposed to the wealthier parts of town where she’ll be cleaning pools in a temporary job.
Unlike Lindsay, who kept as much distance as possible between herself and her home and family, the kind auto mechanic James (Henry), whom she befriends tentatively while getting her brother’s broken truck repaired, has remained on his employ. family home with uncomfortable associations. The evolution of their relationship is played with pleasant understatement by Lawrence and Henry, as Lindsay slowly opens up about what happened to her in Afghanistan and James reveals the details of an accident in which he lost a leg.
Lindsay’s poolside job offers moments of serenity, and with owners often out of town, places to hang out and escape the heat with James. The false hint of a possible romance is corrected by a revelation about Lindsay’s sexuality, treated not as a redefinition of who she is, but simply as another facet of her taciturn nature. She also shows signs of softening towards her flaky but caring mother in a lovely scene where they cool off together in a cheap inflatable pool in the garden.
There are no big revelations in the script and no moments of big dramatic fireworks. But there’s a warm ebb and flow of trust in Lindsay’s friendship with James, as they bond through a shared love of vintage Ernie K-Doe hits and then respond intuitively to each other’s needs, albeit with some hitches and misunderstandings. The emotional shifts are nicely underlined by tender electronic music by former Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers.
Causeway marked Lawrence’s first new project after announcing that she was taking a year off to catch her breath, and it’s a pleasure to see her return to her indie roots, especially if Henry’s presence prompts her to step up her game. He digs deep into ways we haven’t seen much of him since his indelible single scene in If Beale Street Could Talk. The chemistry between these two excellent actors, each very different in style, creeps up on you and enriches this humble drama about bruised people who lower their watchfulness enough to seek solace.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (special presentation)
Distribution: A24/Apple TV+
Production companies: A24, Excellent Cadaver, IAC Films
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Jayne Houdyshell, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Harvard, Fred Weller, Sean Carvajal, Will Pullen, Neal Huff
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Screenwriters: Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, Elizabeth Sanders
Producers: Jennifer Lawrence, Justin Ciarrocchi
Executive Producers: Lila Neugebauer, Jacob Jaffke, Sophia Lin, Patricia Clarkson, Kirk Michael Fellows, Christopher J. Surgent
Director of Photography: Diego Garcia
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Costume designer: Heidi Bivens
Music: Alex Somers
Editors: Robert Frazen, Lucian Johnston
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
Rated R, 1 hour 34 minutes