Causeway Review: Jennifer Lawrence And Brian Tyree Henry Are Wonderful In This Low-Key Drama

There's something refreshingly low-stakes about "Causeway," Lila Neugebauer's quiet drama about a friendship that develops between two damaged people. But the film is, perhaps, too low-key for its own good. We all like to talk about how we long for adult dramas to break us from the superhero sludge, and here's one, ready and made. So why then does it feel a tad underwhelming? By the time "Causeway" reached its conclusion I was left feeling both refreshed at how relaxed the whole affair was while also feeling like I wanted something more. 

Thankfully, "Causeway" has two things going for it: the excellent lead performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry. Lawrence, in particular, does some of her best work in years. After bursting onto the scene in "Winter's Bone," Lawrence was seemingly everywhere. So much so that she decided to take a few years off from acting. After returning with the absolutely terrible "Don't Look Up," a film that stranded her with not much to do, it's wonderful to see her deliver such a quiet, contemplative performance here. It's a reminder that yes, she's the real deal — a great performer when given material to match her talents. 

Henry is also one of the best working today, and after watching him stuck delivering atrocious "Thomas the Tank Engine" jokes in "Bullet Train," it was a breath of fresh air to watch his work here — so calm, so cool, so subtly haunted. Lawrence and Henry play characters inhabiting New Orleans. They meet by chance — he's a mechanic, and her truck broke down. But what starts as a transaction then blossoms into a friendship, and as these two characters grow closer (though not romantic; Lawrence's character is gay) they also learn they have something in common: they're both broken in their own ways.

A friendship

At the start of "Causeway," we're introduced to Lawrence's character Lynsey in a mute, unmoving state. She was injured overseas — we later learn she's a member of the Army Corps of Engineers — and a brain injury has left her unable to take care of herself. After being nursed back to some semblance of health (Jayne Houdyshell plays the nurse, in a very small, but very impactful role), Lynsey returns home to live with her mother Gloria (Linda Emond), a woman so frazzled that she forgets to even pick Lynsey up at the bus stop. 

Despite her injury, all Lynsey wants to do is be cleared to redeploy. In the meantime, she takes a job as a pool cleaner — and she meets James (Henry), a laid-back guy fond of getting high and cracking open a few beers (and listen, there's nothing like cracking open a cold beer on a hot night in New Orleans, I can assure you). James and Lynsey become friends somewhat quickly, and it eventually becomes clear what they have in common: they were both injured in some nearly catastrophic way, and they're both still living with the fallout. 

And that's it, really. Aside from a big argument scene where these once-friendly characters blow up at each other, "Causeway" isn't interested in much more than having Lynsey and James quietly bond — driving around town listening to music, sharing a joint in a park, sitting on a porch swigging beer. It's like a hang-out movie, but with the central characters are simmering in their hurt and confusion. 

Two strong performances

Neugebauer's sturdy direction remains objective, although there's a moment involving a car accident that puts is in Lynsey's head. Otherwise, the camera appears to hang back, capturing all of this with an uncritical eye. The tree-shaded streets and hot parking lots of the location also effectively render the setting — you can practically feel that New Orleans humidity pulsing off the screen. 

There's something charming about how shaggy and subdued "Causeway" is, but I still wanted just something more. I'm not talking about a big dramatic swing or some sort of burst of action. Just something else to justify the film's feature length — I could easily see this as a short, half-hour film that's ten times stronger. Still, "Causeway" gets by thanks to those performances. Lawrence is wonderful here, playing Lynsey as someone constantly on edge, unsure of what her new limitations are. She speaks slowly, deliberately. But she's also quiet for long stretches, looking at everything with a curious eye. You get the sense that there's always something on the tip of her tongue; something she never fully articulates.

Henry is just as good. His role is even more laid-back ... until it isn't. But the actor has such a warm, looming presence that you completely understand why Lynsey would be so quickly drawn to this stranger. Henry also has a unique way of delivering his dialogue — slow, methodical, with long, pregnant pauses that seem to say more than the words themselves. Watching Lawrence and Henry act off each other is what really makes "Causeway" worth watching. 

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10