All is not well with Jennifer Lawrence.
This is the general sentiment that prevails in the early scenes of Lila Neugebauer’s new Apple TV+ film “Causeway.” Amidst a sparse score and an unadorned bedroom setting, Lawrence’s character Lynsey does lots of staring and struggles to perform basic tasks without the help of an older caretaker. It eventually becomes clear that Lynsey is suffering from PTSD as a result of a vaguely described accident during military service in Afghanistan. While this is certainly a jarring start, what follows is an endearing vignette of human resilience and companionship. But while “Causeway”’s strong lead performances do much to make this story compelling, its heavy-handed dose of melodrama acts as a conspicuous obstacle to its emotional resonance.
In one of her most ambitious and dramatic roles to date, Jennifer Lawrence is predictably outstanding. The film’s beginning is a particularly rich site for her to flaunt her acting expertise; her limp and lifeless disposition is so visceral that it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. While Lynsey eventually regains much of her bodily functionality, Lawrence still lets glimpses of her trauma slip through in the way she carries herself, a nuanced and highly skillful touch. Beyond her physicality, Lawrence also lends some of her trademark sarcastic wit to Lynsey in a way that not only allows audiences to relish in this recognizable persona but also feels like a necessary addition to the character’s personality. By showing the emotional ebbs and flows of Lynsey’s recovery, Lawrence paints a realistic and compelling portrait of her character.
While matching the dynamism of one of Hollywood’s most adept actors is no small feat, Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Lawrence’s newfound friend James, manages to do just that. Indeed, Henry displays his own well-established acting prowess by making audiences laugh and cry in the same scene through James’s lively humor and extreme vulnerability. After meeting Lynsey at his auto shop, James is quick to befriend her and supports her with a warmth that radiates from the screen. This emotional potency appears most vividly when James recounts his own trauma to Lynsey, with Henry letting the memory roll off his tongue with a resigned cadence and blank stare that is equal parts transfixing and tragic. Henry acts as a grounded foil to Lawrence’s unraveled Lynsey and develops his own character in a meaningful way, thus rounding out the talent in “Causeway”’s leading duo.
Unfortunately, the film’s emotionally charged performances fail to mask the misplaced melodrama that acts as “Causeway”’s Achilles’ heel. While the film succeeds at conveying Lynsey’s despair in the quiet moments of reflection she shares with James, it often undermines its own deft characterization with an overreliance on long shots of Lawrence staring at nothing in particular. This motif of the lingering camera feels slightly overindulgent by the film’s end, almost as if the director is begging the audience to recognize the obvious fact that Lynsey is sad.
The film’s melodrama reaches its peak during an emotional fight scene between Lynsey and James — at once the film’s flashiest and weakest. When audiences are just starting to become invested in the two characters’ budding friendship, suddenly this combative scene rushes together and feels far too much like an unnatural plot mechanism. The insults that each character throws at the other seem hyperbolic and confusing, merely opening the door to a formulaic reunion at the film’s end. While the film as a whole certainly tells an original and compelling story, this scene veers deep into the realm of generic Oscar bait by using a moment of loud screaming to ensure audiences take note of the actors’ commitment to their roles.
The film’s world-building efforts are not particularly noteworthy, with its depiction of New Orleans mostly limited to James’ shop and a smattering of houses. The few instances when the camera pans over the ostentatious mansions whose pools Lynsey cleans for part-time employment constitute some of the film’s strongest cinematographic moments, as they allude to the socioeconomic dimensions of this story. By placing Lynsey in a world so unlike that of her own run-down home, the film skilfully uses setting to amplify her disillusionment and make her desire for something different understandable.
As its title suggests, “Causeway” tells the story of a transitory period in one person’s life, a particularly turbulent crossing rife with reflection and reconnection. In its efforts to recount Lynsey’s return to normalcy, the film artfully captures the flurry of mixed emotions that may entail such an experience while occasionally administering too great a dose of dramatic embellishment. But even when all else fails (which is rare), there is always Jennifer Lawrence to save the day.