while causeway is positioned as an intimate account of the troubled return home from Afghanistan of an injured US Army engineer played by Jennifer Lawrence, this minor-key drama only really blossoms after its stealth transformation into a balanced two-hander about damaged people finding mutual solace. Brian Tyree Henry’s soulful work brings out richer shadings in Lawrence’s guarded stoicism and vice versa. Debuting director Lila Neugebauer surrounds herself with top-tier recruits from her New York stage background to flesh out this melancholy reflection on trauma and trust, set against the sleepy background of blue-collar New Orleans.
Neugebauer made a name for herself with incisive theater work in the past decade, notably her immersive staging of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, about a high school girls’ soccer team; the Edward Albee diptych At Home at the Zoo; and Tracy Letts’ fragmented character study Mary Page Marlowe. She made an assured Broadway debut with the 2018 revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The WaverlyGallerydirecting a starry cast that included Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen and Michael Cera.
The Bottom Line
Small but satisfying.
The sensitivity, delicate modulation of tone and skilled ensemble work that distinguished those stage productions is evident in A24’s causeway, which marks the first screenplay from noted novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, co-written with newcomers Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders. It’s a small-scale film that many might call unambitious, favoring delicate observation over big emotional payoff. But its humanistic virtues should register with Apple TV+ viewers.
Lawrence plays Lindsay, an army engineer specializing in water systems, forced to undergo an arduous physical and mental rehab program for a brain injury and compromised motor skills after her vehicle was hit by an IED in Afghanistan. She gets nurturing attention from compassionate VA care worker Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell), who cautions against rushing her recovery, telling her that redeployment 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 be there for long.
Returning to a messy house with no food, Lindsay discovers that her single mother Gloria (Linda Emond) mixed up the day she was due back, an indication of her general unreliability. The pieces gradually come together of an unhappy upbringing, including the distress of watching her brother Justin (Russell Harvard, in a single beautiful scene toward the end) mess up his life with drugs. All that explains why she’s so anxious to return to active service, despite warnings from her neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) that going off her meds will put her at high risk for seizures and chronic depression.
The film’s muted visuals could be more interesting, but it shows a nice feel for the low-income New Orleans neighborhood where Lindsay grew up, in contrast to the wealthier parts of town where she goes to clean pools in a placeholder job.
Unlike Lindsay, who put as much distance between herself and her home and family as possible, the kind auto mechanic, James (Henry), with whom she strikes up a tentative while getting her brother’s beat-up truck fixed, has remained friendship in his family home with uncomfortable associations. The evolution of their relationship is played with pleasing 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 pool job provides moments of serenity, and with owners frequently out of town, places to hang out and escape the heat with James. The false lead of a possible romance gets course-corrected by a disclosure about Lindsay’s sexuality, treated not as a redefinition of who she is but simply as another facet of her taciturn character. She also shows signs of softening toward her flaky but caring mother in a lovely scene where they cool off together in a cheap inflatable pool in the yard.
There are no big epiphanies in the script and no moments of major dramatic fireworks. But there’s a warming ebb and flow of trust in Lindsay’s friendship with James as they bond first over 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 underscored by tender electronic music from former Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers.
causeway Lawrence’s first new project marked after announcing she was taking a breather for a year, and it’s a pleasure to see her return to her indie roots, especially once Henry’s presence prompts her to up her game. He digs deep in ways we have not seen much from him since his indelible single scene from him in If Beale Street Could Talk. The chemistry between these two excellent actors, each of them quite distinct in style, sneaks up on you and enriches this modest drama about bruised people lowering their guard enough to seek comfort.
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