Writers: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh and Elizabeth Sanders
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Causeway is the kind of film that wins Academy Awards for its actors. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry give quiet but assured performances as two people paralysed by PTSD and grief respectively. Lila Neugebauer’s debut film is slow and ponderous in places, but it’s also thoughtful and insightful and the back gardens of New Orleans look spectacular.
When we first meet Lawrence’s Lynsey her injuries and her PTSD, both sustained on a tour of Afghanistan, mean that she is in a wheelchair, unable to dress herself or even clean her teeth without help. But her recovery is quick, and she returns to her family home in New Orleans. Only her mother is there now and the relationship between them is fraught. Her mother, an enigmatic Linda Emond more known for her TV work, drinks, smokes and has men round to listen to jazz. Lynsey, in comparison, is sullen and almost disapproving, and she’d rather spend time alone and continually refuses her mother’s gentle requests for company.
Lynsey meets Tyree Henry’s James when her truck breaks down and she takes it into James’s garage to get fixed. He’s patient with her odd ways and after he drives her home so that she doesn’t have to walk in the New Orleans heat, they develop the edges of a friendship. When James abruptly stops talking about his sister, who Lynsey once met, she suspects that a grief too wide to negotiate fills his life.
At first, they seem as if they have nothing in common but loss. While they are both from New Orleans she is white, received a scholarship to go to a good school and escaped the city for a life in the military. James is black, and appears not to have left the city, a stasis perhaps symbolised by the prosthetic leg he had fitted after a car crash. Just when it seems as if their relationship will be a romantic one, Lynsey reveals that she likes girls. James is visibly confused as to where that leaves him.
For a lot of the film, Lawrence has to present a blank face to the camera as her character works her way back to health. But in this blankness, Lawrence is able to show the traces of further emotions such as fear and confusion. To others, especially her mother, she looks cold and to James, she looks unreadable. But, because of this, when the smiles come, even the faintest of them seems warm and restorative. Lawrence’s performance is impressively understated.
Tyree Henry beautifully captures the sadness of James whose steady but lonely life is interrupted by the arrival of Lynsey. Much is left unsaid in his performance and it’s almost impossible to tell whether he harbours any sexual desire for his new friend as they hang out at the pools she cleans when the owners are away. He smoulders with defeat, as persuading Lynsey to deal with her demons means that he must confront his own.
With no action, and with all the scenes two-handers – Lynsey with her carer, Lynsey with her mother, her doctor, with James – the film is very theatrical and could easily be put on stage with little change to the script. But this inclination towards the theatre provides the only duff note in the film. A heated exchange between Lynsey and James ends up with each giving the other some hard truths in way that would never occur in real life. But the push and pull between Lynsey’s desire, as she refers to it, to go ‘back to work’ and James’s need to stay is nicely realised and never too sentimental.
Produced by Apple TV+, Causeway may be too slow for some and is destined to the art-house cinema rather than the multiplex. But despite its tempo, it seems that Lawrence and Tyree Henry will be regulars in the award season next year, and even Linda Emond may get a look in.
Causeway is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.