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Jennifer Lawrence gives a career-defining performance in ‘Causeway’

The actress plays an injured Afghanistan war vet in this drama costarring Brian Tyree Henry as a mechanic with his own history of trauma

Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Lawrence in "Causeway."Wilson Webb/Apple TV+ via AP

“Causeway” marks Jennifer Lawrence’s return to the small, independent films that introduced her to audiences, movies like 2010′s “Winter’s Bone.” It’s a reminder that those big, star-studded affairs she’s appeared in for years have done her a disservice, even if one of them, “Silver Linings Playbook,” won her an Oscar. Director Lila Neugebauer’s film is an intimate affair, a tale of two wounded people (literally and figuratively) who cautiously navigate a friendship in their hometown of New Orleans. The Big Easy depicted here is outside the tourist-filled areas; it’s just another neighborhood with regular people doing regular jobs and dealing with their problems.


Jennifer Lawrence in "Causeway."Wilson Webb/Apple TV+ via AP

Lawrence plays Lynsey, an Afghanistan war veteran who was discharged after suffering a traumatic brain injury in an IED attack. The first section of “Causeway” details her rehabilitation with Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell), an older woman who went back to school to be trained in rehab after taking care of one of her own injured family members. Tracing Lynsey’s recovery with dramatic ebbs and flows, these first few minutes could easily exist on their own as a short film.

Much of “Causeway” works in this vein. The script by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders is a series of two-handers, interactions between Lawrence and other actors that feel both self-contained and part of the larger narrative. The cast provides a murderers’ row of scene partners, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, “Succession”’s Linda Emond, Will Pullen, and Brian Tyree Henry.

The through-line is how Lynsey deals with the trauma resulting from her war injuries and the effect it has on her physical and mental well-being. Lawrence’s impressive, earthy performance is perhaps her best. She keeps the movie grounded even after it makes a rather large narrative mistake.

Lawrence’s primary scene partner is Henry’s mechanic, James. He works at the shop where she brings her mother’s truck in for a carburetor repair. Like Lynsey, James suffered a traumatic injury when he lost his leg in a car accident. They swap hometown stories about their respective high schools and how James’s sister used to play basketball against Lynsey’s high school team.


Their relationship is established as platonic early on — Lynsey tells James she’s a lesbian — so the audience can temper its expectation. These are two lonely people whose own raised guards keep others at bay. In their scenes together, Lawrence and Henry have a lovely chemistry, manifested not just in their banter but in their silences and pauses. So much is hinted at, or alluded to, in their conversations, potential minefields that they cautiously avoid due to the skittishness inherent in trauma. Together, they’re a graceful duet, with Henry’s excellent performance matching Lawrence’s note for note.

Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Lawrence in "Causeway."Wilson Webb/Apple TV+ via AP

Emond plays Gloria, Lynsey’s mother. Though she loves her daughter, she’s not very reliable, and the strain in their relationship reveals itself through the actors’ body language and the subtext of their conversations. Lynsey has put up with a lifetime of her family’s substance abuse, to the point where she enlisted to get away. Lynsey’s deaf brother (Pullen) struggles with addiction, and Gloria appears to enjoy more than a few belts of booze herself. The stiff cocktail of drugs Lynsey’s neurologist Dr. Lucas (Henderson) prescribed to keep her functioning prevents her from partaking in heavy drinking, though she does occasionally have beers with James after she finishes her day job cleaning pools.


“You’ve been drinking?” Gloria asks at one point. “I thought you were the responsible one.” When Lynsey protests, her mother adds, “Well, don’t turn into your Aunt Leslie, or anyone else from my family.”

Family is another point of commiseration for Lynsey and James, though his story is far more tragic. As more information is revealed about how James lost his leg and the fiancee who left him afterward, “Causeway” makes its one big dramatic mistake: It betrays its two lead characters just so there can be some form of second-act conflict. As irritating as this development is, it leads to Henry’s best scene, a monologue that should serve as an Oscar clip if there’s any justice.

Neugebauer uses water as a repeated motif in “Causeway.” It’s in the pools Lynsey cleans and occasionally immerses herself in when her customers aren’t home. It’s in the shower she retreats to under stress. And it was in her original job as an Army Corps of Engineers water and dam specialist, which she hopes to return to if Dr. Lucas signs her waiver. Any metaphoric meaning is left up to the viewer, who will be too busy basking in the fine performances to give it much thought.



Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Written by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Linda Emond, Will Pullen, and Brian Tyree Henry. 92 minutes. On Apple TV+. R (a few F-bombs and some drug use).


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at odie.henderson@globe.com.