One of the top actors of his generation, it’s only a matter of time before Brian Tyree Henry lands a project that puts his talents front and center. But even in supporting roles, whenever he’s on screen, suddenly you’re locked in to what he’s doing regardless of genre. In the indie movie “Causeway” on Apple TV+, he’s showing off his looser side as an actor, playing an auto mechanic who befriends a young woman back home after serving in the Army in Afghanistan. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that elevates the film at every turn.
However, Jennifer Lawrence is the film’s primary interest as Lynsey, the aforementioned veteran who has suffered a traumatic brain injury after an explosion. Numbed, closed off and dealing with some serious physical disabilities, she first rehabs in the residence of a gentle but practical home health care provider (Jayne Houdyshell) who literally gets her back on her feet.
Then Lynsey is on a bus heading back to her dilapidated working-class childhood home in New Orleans, which is where the bulk of the story takes place. The physical effects of her injury are mostly dispensed with, but the emotional issues linger.
Though her mom (Linda Emond) is mutedly happy to see her, she’s also not particularly invested in her daughter’s return and the feeling is mutual. There’s not a lot of warmth between the two but plenty of unspoken history; they are polite but awkward around one another.
And so Lynsey gets a job cleaning pools. The contrast between the luxurious Garden District backyards she services and the sad inflatable pool she and her mom cool off in one night is on point. “You can tell a lot about a person ‘cause of what’s in the pool drain,” her boss tells her, and it’s a line that’s maybe the closest the film comes to either comedy or commentary. The job is a way to pass the time until Lynsey can get her doctor to sign off and allow her to redeploy. That was her ticket out the first time and it’s all she knows.
Then she meets a mechanic named James, played by Henry, and they form a tentative friendship. He’s friendly and funny without being pushy. He’s also watchful and quietly repressing some trauma of his own and he recognizes something in her that hits a little too close to home: She’s lost and unmoored. Maybe he finds the sharp edges of her personality intriguing as well, so he extends her more courtesy than he might otherwise. As for Lynsey, she needs a helping hand (or a ride) every so often and sees something genuine and familiar in James’ low-key gregariousness, which has such a distinctly New Orleans quality to it.
As a film, “Causeway” is perhaps too cautious and oblique about the story it wants to tell. Is it about the struggle for veterans to re-acclimate Stateside? Sort of, but Lynsey reveals almost nothing about her time in the military. Is it about returning to a place that feels like the ghost town of your soul and forging new and unlikely connections? Yes, but it’s maybe too hands-off in that regard.
Lynsey is reticent and detached from the world around her and Lawrence’s performance can’t do enough to sketch in the contours of this woman’s personality beyond her outward qualities. In terms of affect, Lawrence has stripped everything down to the studs and it’s tempting to compare her work here to her breakout Oscar-nominated role more than a decade ago in “Winter’s Bone.” But unlike that earlier performance, this one feels so inward as to keep the audience at arm’s length. What interests or drives this young woman beyond running from her demons?
Pain and guilt and unresolved anger can become so embedded, they shape the way you interact with the world. Maybe getting to know a stranger can feel like a reprieve. Here’s someone who doesn’t view you through the prism of your history; you are the person who stands before them, not an accumulation of your past. That’s what the movie seems to be getting at most effectively, particularly when it comes to James and why he might be drawn to Lynsey.
The title itself refers to the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway bridge, which spans 24 miles over Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. James was in a car accident on the Causeway that has left him sorting through the emotional wreckage, though he keeps most of that tamped down beneath his easygoing demeanor. Being around Lynsey offers him the opportunity to interact with someone new who doesn’t look at him with pity — until she does. That amounts to the film’s climax, and I’m not sure it’s actually enough. The movie also takes a colorblind approach, which has a way of erasing some specificity along the way.
A staggering number of TV and movie projects take place in New Orleans these days due in part to the lucrative filming incentives offered in Louisiana. Director Lila Neugebauer captures the laconic pace of life in New Orleans, as well as the visual and tonal sensibility of the city — it’s important to be specific to a place, otherwise why shoot there? — but the script misses so much. It takes about 45 minutes to cross the Causeway, which can feel surreal the first few times you do it — the lake is enormous — and to crash on the Causeway is an especially frightening prospect because there’s nothing but water on either side for miles and miles. Neither James nor Lynsey comment on this, which is odd. That’s confounding because the screenplay comes from Elizabeth Sanders, who is from New Orleans, as well as Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, the latter of whom is also a one-time New Orleans resident.
New Orleans has always been a small town masquerading as a city, and that Lynsey runs into nobody she knew growing up is conspicuous. It just doesn’t track. She also mentions that she attended, on scholarship, a ritzy and well-known private school in New Orleans (the same school that counts Eli and Peyton Manning as alum, though the film doesn’t mention this) and educational environments like this? They’re not typically pushing even their scholarship students on a path to enlistment. I wish we gleaned some information as to why Lynsey thought it was her best option. It’s a small detail but would tell us so much more about how she views her place in the world.
As it is, she remains unknowable.
“Causeway” — 2 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Apple TV+
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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