Jennifer Lawrence has been gone too long. Though The Hunger Games star was the highest-paid actress on the planet in 2015 and 2016, Causeway is only the actor’s second film since her blue-suited superhero contract was killed dead (in more ways than one) by X-Men: Dark Phoenix in 2019. Now, after a turn in Adam McKay’s star-studded climate change satire Don’t Look Up, Lawrence has strapped on her producer hat and stripped back the Hollywood glamour for Causeway, a small-scale, mature drama in the suburbs of New Orleans.
It’s a cinematic return she makes effortlessly. Lawrence plays Lynsey, a soldier who suffers a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan and is forced to return to her childhood home while she waits to return to the front line. Her physical recovery plays out mainly over the first twenty minutes and is an excellent reminder of what we’ve been missing for the last few years. Her hunched shoulders, wide eyes and what might be some of the best panic attack acting we’ve seen for a while all contribute to a performance which could quickly feel like showy Oscar-bait. Instead, the film’s most impressive trick is how small everything plays. In an early moment in her rehabilitation, Lynsey says, “driving a car shouldn’t be a victory,” but these tiny moments build up to something really quite moving.
With her body on the mend, Lynsey gets a job cleaning pools and builds a friendship with Brian Tyree Henry’s mechanic, James. James is proper lovely. Tyree Henry gives a standout performance, and his scenes with Lawrence are some of the most affecting in the film. The pair have undeniable chemistry—the kind that makes their long silences hum like a comforting electric heater—, and some beautiful cinematography which frames them both against the tranquil blue of suburbia’s many swimming pools lends the film a melancholy calm that’s easy to sink into.
Great performances are helped by a script which daintily avoids stereotypes: Lynsey’s mother, played (again, superbly) by Linda Emond, is a role which could so easily have become cliched and empty but instead provides ample room to explore their family’s complicated relationship. In the same vein, the film’s final moments are beautifully pitched, and we find great catharsis in a plot with the confidence to spend time smelling the roses.
Causeway wears its generosity like a badge of honour. Its characters are good but flawed. Consistent but contradictory. They’re entirely, recognisably, human. Causeway won’t set the world on fire, and that’s probably a good thing. But Lila Neugebauer’s drama smoulders like an old fireplace, with a gentleness to match.
Welcome back, J-Law. It’s good to have you back.
Causeway was screened at BFI London Film Festival on October 8.