In Causeway, Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, an Afghanistan War veteran who sustained severe combat injuries that left her temporarily disabled. She is first shown in a wheelchair, unable to dress herself, get up, use the bathroom, take pills, or bathe without the assistance of her nurse, Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell). Lynsey does not seem to find her predicament devastating; though when Sharon allows that she went into nursing following years as her husband’s caregiver, Lynsey carelessly responds, “What a miserable life.”
Lynsey works with a neuropsychologist on her head injury and memory loss, and with physical therapists to slowly learn to walk again, using parallel bars and a walker. The film’s attention to detail and Lawrence’s performance are particularly impressive, and it comes as no surprise that the names of several physical therapy consultants appear in the end credits. These opening scenes fastidiously depict the laborious rehabilitation process, giving hope that the film will faithfully render the physical and emotional obstacles on this road to recovery without clichés. Sadly, that’s wishful thinking.
After powering through rehab, Lynsey earns her release from the facility. She is understandably keen to get back to work and resume a sense of normalcy, but for now she must return to her native New Orleans until a doctor will sign off on her next deployment. When her bus pulls into the station, no one is there to pick her up. When her mother, Gloria (Linda Emond), finally gets home, they barely exchange a few words. The next day, Lynsey promptly lands a job cleaning pools, and when her truck breaks down, she seeks help from mechanic James (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry). As it turns out, they have quite a bit in common. She used to play basketball against his sister, and he is dealing with his own physical and emotional trauma stemming from a car accident.
Causeway sets out to be about two broken souls forging a beautiful friendship. But just as everything centering on Lynsey’s rehabilitation rings true, everything about the friendship feels inauthentic. James behaves like the perfect boyfriend, which immediately prompts Lynsey to set up boundaries by announcing she likes girls, for fear of giving him false hope. They ought to act like bros from this point on, but the trite romantic overtone persists and builds up to a kiss both characters instantly regret. Perhaps to avoid vilifying James, the story has Lynsey as the one who initiates, which makes it even less believable.
The screenplay, by novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders, takes two potentially fascinating characters and tosses them into this formulaic trap so that everything they do feels like a date. You have to wonder if the screenwriters truly believe that is the only kind of relationship permissible between a grown man and a grown woman, or if their conceptual range is so limited that they don’t know how to write about friendship, support, joy, and purpose without the prospect of romantic love present.
The actors definitely aren’t at fault. Lawrence, who also shares producing credit, obviously recognizes the material’s potential as an acting showcase. Scenes revolving around the rehabilitation process are some of her career best. Henry is certainly her match acting wise, and excellent as a leading man. It’s a shame the screenplay calls for them to be in seemingly romantic situations yet stipulates that there should be absolutely zero chemistry between them because Lynsey is a lesbian.
Director Lila Neugebauer, who makes her feature debut with this film, has spent a decade directing theater. The film does feel a bit stagy, as if it were adapted from a play. Granted, it’s essentially a two-hander. But beyond that, the visuals don’t stand out. If the characters didn’t announce they were in New Orleans, you would never guess. Cinematographer Diego Garcia, who lensed Wildlife and Cemetery Of Splendor, makes the most of scenes that take place in a swimming pool at night, while production designer Jack Fisk (Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood) seems constrained by a limited budget. but other than the pair of outstanding lead performances, there really isn’t much cause to watch it.