In Lila Neugebauer’s debut film, which had its Toronto premiere, the Oscar winner portrays a soldier injured in Afghanistan whose return to New Orleans rekindles prior emotional scars.
Although Causeway bills itself as an intimate look at an injured U.S. Army engineer’s tumultuous return from Afghanistan, played by Jennifer Lawrence, this minor-key drama only truly comes into its own after a covert transformation into a balanced two-hander about broken people finding mutual solace. Lawrence’s reserved stoicism is given deeper shadings by Brian Tyree Henry’s heartfelt work and vice versa. To round out this sombre rumination on pain and trust, set against the peaceful backdrop of blue-collar New Orleans, debuting director Lila Neugebauer surrounds herself with top-tier recruits from her New York theatrical background.
In the last ten years, Neugebauer has gained recognition for her sharp theatrical work, including her immersive productions of Tracy Letts’ fractured character study Mary Page Marlowe, the Edward Albee diptych At Home at the Zoo, and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, about a high school girls soccer team. With the 2018 production of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which she directed and featured a stellar ensemble that included Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen, and Michael Cera, she made a confident Broadway debut.
A24’s Causeway, which is the first screenplay by renowned novelist Ottessa Moshfegh and was co-written with newcomers Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders, exemplifies the sensitivity, nuanced tone modulation, and excellent ensemble work that defined previous stage works. It’s a small-scale movie that some would criticise for being unambitious because it favours subtle observation over a strong emotional payoff. However, its humanistic values ought to be noticed by Apple TV+ viewers.
Lawrence portrays Lindsay, an army engineer with a focus on water systems who must endure a taxing physical and mental rehabilitation programme due to a brain injury and impaired motor abilities sustained after her vehicle was struck by an IED in Afghanistan. She receives tender treatment from sympathetic VA caregiver Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell), who warns against hastening her rehabilitation and advises her against redeployment. But Lindsay is obstinate; she leaves sooner than recommended and takes a bus back to New Orleans because she doesn’t plan to stay long.
Lindsay returns home to a disorganised home without food and learns that her single mother Gloria (Linda Emond) messed up the day she was supposed to return, demonstrating her usual unreliability. The puzzle of her terrible childhood gradually comes together, including the pain of witnessing her brother Justin (Russell Harvard, in a single stunning scene toward the end) ruin his life with drugs. That explains why she is eager to rejoin the military despite her neurologist’s (Stephen McKinley Henderson) cautions that stopping her medication puts her at a high risk for seizures and long-term sadness.
Although the film’s subdued images could be more engaging, they nonetheless convey a wonderful sense of Lindsay’s upbringing in a low-income New Orleans neighbourhood as opposed to the nicer areas of the city where she travels to work as a temporary pool cleaner.
The kind auto mechanic, James (Henry), with whom she tentatively forms a friendship while having her brother’s beat-up truck fixed, has remained in his family house with unwanted associations, in contrast to Lindsay who has made every effort to distance herself from her home and family. Lawrence and Henry play the development of their friendship with pleasant understatement as Lindsay gradually shares what happened to her in Afghanistan and James discloses the specifics of an accident in which he was involved.
Since the owners are usually out of town, Lindsay’s pool employment offers James peaceful periods as well as cool spots to hang out and escape the heat. A revelation regarding Lindsay’s sexuality, which is not interpreted as a redefinition of who she is but rather as just another aspect of her reserved personality, corrects the false lead of a potential romance. In a sweet scene where they relax together in a low-quality inflatable pool in the backyard, she also exhibits indications of softening toward her erratic but loving mother.
The story lacks any key turning points or explosive dramatic scenes. Although there are hiccups and misunderstandings, there is a warming ebb and flow of trust in Lindsay and James’ friendship as they first connect over a love of classic Ernie K-Doe songs and subsequently react intuitively to one other’s needs. Alex Somers, a former member of Sigur Rós, creates sensitive electronic music that beautifully highlights the emotional shifts.
It’s great to see Lawrence return to her indie roots, especially once Henry’s presence inspires her to step up her game. Causeway was her first new project after announcing she was taking a year off. Since his iconic one-scene performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, he hasn’t shown us much of his inner depth, but he goes deep this time. This little drama about battered people lowering their guard just enough to seek comfort is enhanced by the chemistry between these two superb actors, each of whom is fairly distinct in style.