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66th BFI London Film Festival: Causeway

Photo: Courtesy A24.

Despite being one of the most ubiquitous stars of the 2010s, Jennifer Lawrence has retreated from filmmaking in recent years, pacing herself and picking her projects more sparingly, if not perhaps more wisely. Having broken through with her star-making turn in Debra Granik’s hard-edged realist drama Winter’s Bone, Lawrence tended to favor bigger, more lucrative projects, trading JLaw star vehicles with Jennifer Lawrence awards-darling prestige dramas. Many still look back on Winter’s Bone as the high point of her career, though, and with both stars and audiences tending to favor more naturalistic and relatable character based dramas of late, Lawrence has seemingly chosen to go back to her roots by taking on a role in Maid creator Lila Neugebauer’s feature film debut, the austerely titled Causeway.

From the start, Causeway could well have been directed by Granik herself, as we’re introduced to Lynsey (Lawrence) unhappy, depressed and struggling with the aftereffects of a brain hemorrhage induced by an attack while she was in active service in Afghanistan. Recovery is slow, but she’s keen to return to service, even as she can barely walk. As she is released from hospital and returned to her family in New Orleans, it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not running into danger, she’s running away from of a troubled and unfulfilling life at home.

Recovery from trauma and injury can’t be done alone, though, and Lynsey soon meets car mechanic James (a typically excellent Brian Tyree Henry) who is also struggling with similar feelings, and the two start to bond. The film shuts down the idea of any kind of romantic attachment between the two, instead focusing on the platonic bonds of shared experience of trauma and disability, and the friendship that forms between them as they begin to open each other up.

Earlier this year, Channing Tatum starred in and directed the road movie drama Dog, also about a veteran struggling with PTSD and disability, and unwillingly reassimilating into civilian life. That film had some merits but was too troubled by the inclusion of zany hijinks to broaden its appeal. No such compromises trouble Causeway, with its character study of a person who has shut herself off from vulnerability and intimacy treated with the maturity and intelligence it deserves. Lawrence gives a surprisingly credible performance, exercising restraint, portraying Lynsey with tact, and she has charming chemistry with her co-stars. For once she seems to be the promising young performer who broke through in 2010 and not ‘JLaw’ the superstar or ‘Academy Award Winner’ Jennifer Lawrence.

Opposite her, Brian Tyree Henry once again proves his worth as a character actor with movie-star charisma. He gives James bones and offsets his outward charm and amiability with the requisite sense of regret and fatigue. It’s in Lynsey’s interactions with the more minor characters that Causeway earns its wings though. The opening movement during which a near-silent Lynsey is coaxed back to health by her nurse (Jayne Houdyshell), Lynsey’s awkward non-conversations with her mother (Linda Emond) and her eventually reconciliation with her addicted brother (Russell Harvard) are all stellar pieces of drama, written and played with a perfect balance of naturalism and eloquence.

Wholesome though they often are, Lynsey’s scenes with James are occasionally less perfect in their pitch. Like almost any film about the relationship between two people, there comes a time when Lynsey and James find themselves frustrated with one another and air some pent-up grievances. This is the moment when such films most frequently slip up and such is the case here. Lawrence and Tyree Henry both play it well, but the writing is at its most trite and formulaic here, with this transition into the film’s third act being the point at which cracks start to show.

There is also the question of casting. Both Lawrence and Tyree Henry are playing characters suffering from disabilities. Lynsey has been left with motor function issues and James lost a leg. Discussion has been raised in the past about established able-bodied stars taking opportunities that could’ve easily gone to disabled actors. Add to that the fact Lawrence is a straight woman playing a lesbian and the sincerity upon which the film’s base is built starts to feel less than convincing. One need look no further than Russell Harvard’s exceptional performance in this very film to see how much casting actors with real disabilities can contribute to a film’s credibility.

These minor issues aside—and some of these aren’t so much issues with the film as observations about it—Causeway remains a poignant and moving drama. It explores its themes with tact and maturity and its characters are drawn with winning amounts of affection and understanding. Writer-director Lila Neugebauer constructs her character study well and for as familiar a story as it is, the realism and insight she and her cast bring to the project elevate it considerably.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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