AppleTV+ has become a formidable force in award-qualifying content following the success of Sian Heder’s Best Picture-winning CODA in 2021, and with Lila Neugebauer's Causeway, they might be looking to repeat the trick. Although the American theatre director's debut might not make it to the BP race like the aforementioned film, its minimalist depiction of loss, trauma and companionship does make it worth the while.
The lowkey drama follows – almost exclusively – Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), a U.S. soldier who suffers a brain injury from an IED attack in Afghanistan. She returns home and strives to adjust to her former-now-new life, including maneuvering a topsy-turvy relationship with her mother and a job as a pool cleaner while seeking redeployment in the military.
Causeway opens up with a melancholic sequence portraying Lynsey’s path through physiotherapy and rehabilitation, moving the audience to feel even when the character cannot. Here, Jayne Houdyshell exudes her charm from the onset in her subtle, heartwarming role as Lynsey’s caregiver, Sharon.
Admittedly, the rapidity of her recovery process is a tad unbelievable, although easily forgiven as the film then segues into a delightful camaraderie between Lynsey and mechanic, James (Bryan Tyree Henry), a fellow tragic accident survivor. Lynsey is as strong-willed as they come, always inclined to find her way on her own, expectedly stemming from a difficult childhood with a careless mother and junkie brother. The hard walls of her self-isolation – probably built after the accident and her descent into depression – aren't bulldozed down until James walks into the light.
Much of the acclaim the film is receiving has revolved around Jennifer Lawrence’s return to independent cinema and cinema in general (Causeway is only her second film appearance in three years), but it is Bryan Tyree Henry whose appearance really breathes life into the film. The two broken characters go from a truck-repair transaction to finding family and solace in each other, opening up to share their hovering pain and guilt from past lives.
Causeway takes two characters from opposite directions and explores the outsider struggles that bring them together. It relies heavily on limited but meaty dialogue between any two characters in the film, including the few exchanges between Lynsey and her neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson). James and Lynsey's mutual longing for a companion expresses itself in often innocent ways, longing for normalcy in what should be a normal life. But the brain has a tendency to get in the way. Like the dialogue, its simplistic cinematography and camerawork never really leave much more to be desired, masterfully conveying the varying moods of the film and of the regularly plain-faced laconic Lawrence.
Neugebauer's film is not without its flaws; it delivers a few gut-wrenching punches but also seems to make them up as it goes, clutching at forced emotional straws, stacking and stretching them until exhausting them beyond their yield point. While this might inspire a demand for tissues and tear buckets for some, it inadvertently creates holes and leaves a handful of subplots hung out to dry. It is at its best when Lawrence and Henry are sharing a car ride, burger, sno-ball, cigarette or bottle of beer by the poolside. However, not so much when its inevitable conflict eventually arises. It doesn’t hit anticipated levels and the majority of its built-up tension, instead, rolls down a steep hill. And through the bonding and heart pouring, most times, its dynamic leading duo feels too morally flawless to be true.
Causeway is as pleasing as its pools. It wraps a burrowed tale of grief and recovery, and a fine score within an hour and a half that never feels like more. Bryan Tyree Henry further cements himself as more than a comic, more If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) than Bullet Train (2021). With many of its elements – acting, story, and technicals – in sync, Lila Neugebauer can rest assured of the quality of her feature directorial debut. Come for the stars, stay for Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Causeway is streaming now on AppleTV+.