"Causeway" TIFF Review
Above almost anything, Causeway marks Jennifer Lawrence’s return to her independent roots. Through all the Hunger Games, X-Men, and David O. Russell films (in which she had the smarts to turn down an appearance in Amsterdam), it can be easy to forget that this is the same actress who burst onto the scene, and received her first Oscar nomination, in the tiny Sundance film Winter’s Bone. Now a dozen years later, she’s back to being actress Jennifer Lawrence, and not movie star Jennifer Lawrence.
Causeway centers itself on the story of Lynsey, a recently discharged Army corps engineer who must stay at a recovery home after she received a traumatic brain injury from an IED blast. At first, she’s not able to hold a glass or string together a sentence without exerting herself beyond her newfound limits. But after some practice and patience from her caregiver (a wonderful Jayne Houdyshell in a brief role), she’s back on her feet and heading to her real home in New Orleans.
But being back home is not the end of the road for Lynsey, as she must face much tougher challenges including childhood trauma and reintegrating with a society she left behind. Not wanting to overcome that obstacle, she strives to be redeployed, much to the distress of her doctor (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who rightfully notices that Lynsey is not altogether. So, she takes a job cleaning pools, which leads her to cross paths with a local car mechanic by the name of James (Brian Tyree Henry). Noticing their similarities on the inside, the two strike up an interesting connection that goes deeper than something purely platonic or romantic.
Causeway has been plagued by trouble since its inception. It was shot in the middle of 2019, followed by a flurry of reshoots after poor test screenings. Red, White, and Water was its original title, later changed to Causeway this year (a more appropriate, yet bland, title within the context of the story). And after several release date shifts, Apple picked up the film for distribution, their second partnership with A24 after The Tragedy of Macbeth this past year.
Even with all those bumps along the way, first-time director Lila Neugebauer sensitively delivers a personal story that avoids much of the PTSD/trauma clichés we’ve come to expect. It is still a predictable movie in its outcome, but the means to get there are not the ones you’d usually find. There are several surprising choices Neugebauer and the team of screenwriters makes to give this film a semi-fresh take on the genre.
A cello-filled score by Alex Somers beautifully accents much of the low-key nature of the film, creating more of an ambiance for Lawrence and Henry to do some of their best work. Neugebauer’s Broadway sensibilities keep their chemistry warm and palpable, with words seemingly playing a secondary role in how they communicate. A look or body movement does most of the talking, as does a moment of silence.
There’s nothing life-changing or revolutionary about Causeway, even if it does sharpen the mold it stems from. But it does provide showcase roles for its central leads and is a promising start to a potentially fruitful cinematic career for Neugebauer.