Character studies at film festivals are a dime a dozen. Throw a rock at a festival and you’ll hit an independent feature of this ilk. So, you normally need something to set your movie apart. In the case of Causeway, playing at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, having the protagonist played by Jennifer Lawrence is a real feather in its proverbial cap. Lawrence hasn’t been in an indie for a bit now, so her return to this smaller scale level of acting has clearly invigorated her. She’s always good, but she’s truly great here. Her work helps to make this flick still stand out here in Toronto, where she’s delivered as much as any actress at the fest so far.
Causeway is quiet, almost to a fault. The film lives and dies with its central performances, and Lawrence’s in particular. Luckily, she’s more than up to the task. At the same time, the mood of the movie takes center stage, alongside its acting. If you’re looking for a lot to happen, you’ll be disappointed. So, just leave that at the door. If you do that, you’ll be in a better position to appreciate what’s being put forward here in Causeway. Consider that a friendly little bit of advice.
Lynsey (Lawrence) is a member of the Army Corp of Engineers, currently recovering from a traumatic brain injury suffered while serving in Afghanistan. Initially barely able to function, her motor skills return enough for her to head home to New Orleans. When her mother (Linda Emond) forgets to pick her up from the bus, it’s a clear sign that her home life wasn’t exactly hunky dory before she left to fight. PTSD is never far from her mind, but she’s also determined to return to service. In the meantime, she gets a gig cleaning pools, allowing her to be calmed by the quiet flow of the water.
Navigating this frustrating sort of stasis, Lynsey begins to bond with mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s fixing her truck. James has lost a leg, so he wears his scars in a different manner. Quickly, they develop a bond and a friendship, which helps bring out the deeper meanings of their trauma.
Jennifer Lawrence anchors this with a subdued and immensely effective turn. She’s in essentially every scene and there isn’t an ounce of artifice in this performance. That takes nothing away from Brian Tyree Henry though, as he’s excellent as well. Henry has scars just like Lawrence, and watching both characters deal (or not deal) with them is transfixing. Their chemistry is also terrific, showing how easy their bond comes to be. Linda Emond is quietly moving as Lynsey’s mom, who has troubles of her own. She makes the most of just a few scenes. The small supporting cast includes Russell Harvard, Jayne Houdyshell, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, among others.
Director Lila Neugebauer, alongside writers Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Sanders, focuses entirely on character. Neugebauer has an unhurried sense of pacing, but the film never drags. She’s just clearly interested in the faces of her cast, as opposed to having her writers add in unnecessary plot developments. Causeway is observational, through and through. With Lawrence on hand to be observed, it’s a small gamble that pays off.
Causeway is a terrific reminder of how immensely talented Jennifer Lawrence. Almost assuredly the quietest of the high profile TIFF titles this year, it’s a character study worth studying. Despite the short running length, less patient viewers may struggle here, but those willing to invest in this story will see that investment returned by the end.