Like the Snow Cone flavor that Brian Tyree Henry’s character prefers, the understated nature of Causeway can occasionally come off as vanilla and a little cold. The debut work from theater director Lila Neugebauer is also accentuated by solid performances all around (Henry’s is a particular standout) and the toned down vibe can also work in its favor.
Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers member recovering from a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan after an IED explosion. We meet her as she is staying with a warmhearted nurse (Jayne Houdyshell). This first act is handled with a deft touch showing more detail than we typically witness for one’s rough road to recovery.
After significant strides are made, Lynsey returns to her native New Orleans. Her family life is far from ideal as mother Gloria (Linda Emond) forgets which day her daughter is coming back. A brother with a drug problem is talked about but not seen. Feeling restless and anxious at home, Lynsey gets a job cleaning pools that are far nicer than the inflatable one that Mom drinks her cocktails in.
As her nurse learned and her conflicted doctor (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is told, Lynsey’s goal is a return overseas. Her physical recuperation may warrant a waiver being signed. Whether she’s mentally fit to serve is a question her medical advisors and the audience grapples with.
Our eager to redeploy patient meets a kindred spirit in James (Tyree Henry). He’s an auto mechanic introduced to Lynsey after she brings an overheated truck to his repair shop. Like his customer, he’s dealing with his own emotional damage due to a family tragedy. Connecting through shared trauma, Causeway becomes a simple story about a complex friendship. It’s on that level that it succeeds. It does so because of their performances. Those who discovered Lawrence through her first Oscar nod in 2010’s Winter’s Bone will welcome the return to indie drama.
The dramatic stakes don’t feel inflated here. If you feel that not a whole lot happens in the movie, you wouldn’t be mistaken. There are stretches where Lynsey and James are content to just hang (sometimes in a vacationing customer’s pool). Their dynamic is compelling enough that I valued lounging with them.
*** (out of four)