A pickup truck breaking down on the street turns into a blessing of sorts in “Causeway,” a new, gentle Apple TV+ drama starring Jennifer Lawrence.
She plays a military engineer recovering in her native New Orleans after a debilitating brain injury suffered in Afghanistan when her Chevrolet truck’s engine starts smoking.
By chance, she pulls into an auto repair shop and finds another damaged soul — a mechanic living every day with the guilt and the physical aftereffects of a car accident.
“Causeway,” directed by Lila Neugebauer with a straightforward honesty, sounds more manipulative and manufactured than it is. At its best, it’s a quietly affective portrait of unlikely friends hoping they can help each other make it to the shore.
That analogy fits with a film where water plays a crucial role. Lawrence’s Lynsey comes back from Afghanistan to clean pools — an odd sort of high school profession for a veteran soldier — until we learn she was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers tasked with building a dam when her convey was hit by roadside blasts. Remarkably, she wants to go back to war and as soon as she can: “I need to get out of here!”
As she rehabilitates, Lynsey finds peace in the swirls of water and the placidness of an empty swimming pool. At first she just cleans them while the owners are away and then she starts to swim in them, too. Water seems to be her escape — panic attacks send her to the shower — and her place to cleanse. It is no coincidence that this motif has been chosen for a story set in a city ravaged by floodwaters.
The screenplay by Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh and Elizabeth Sanders is unrushed and grounded in real language and a real city. The audience will recognize the hurt hiding behind many lines, as when Lynsey’s mother asks her, “Why did you want to go so far away?” She knows the answer deep down — it is her.
Her accidental friendship with the mechanic (Brian Tyree Henry, brilliant as always) forms the spine of this story and yet they are opposites. She is white; he is Black; she is itching to get out, he is settled; he is straight; she is not. His injury is visible, the loss of part of his left leg; hers is invisible. But they share a survivor’s guilt and a perfect knowledge of where the other’s blind spots are. A scene when she convinces him to swim at night and they happily splash about like giddy teenagers is a highlight.
Along for the ride are some of Broadway’s finest talents, like Jayne Houdyshell as Lynsey’s caretaker tasked with reteaching her basic motor skills, Stephen McKinley Henderson as her stern doctor and Linda Emond as her mother. Emond, in particularly, turns in a sublime performance, both self-centered and distant but also needy and piteous. “Don’t judge me!” she asks her daughter at one point. They have a heartbreaking scene when they share, yes, a kiddie pool.
But almost everything rests on Lawrence here. It is her movie and to play our war-injured veteran she scrubs away her glamor in favor of sneakers, jeans and oversized T-shirts, her hair in a ponytail. Since her injury is to her brain means there are no prosthetics or makeup to use as props and Lawrence does an admirable job, moving mechanically but intently in a haze of a prescriptions chemicals. She is often captured in silence, processing, as light crosses her face.
When she accidentally drops a mound of fluffy shaved ice, she lashes out at herself. She does the same in a remarkable moment when her face goes from elation to sudden sadness when she is behind the wheel for the first time since the bombing: “Driving a car shouldn’t be a victory.”
In “Causeway,” loss is never far, with a sense that the missing are ever-present. It looks at where we seek safety — far away, at home, even behind bars — and how we process guilt and weakness. This isn’t a film with fireworks or a plot neatly tied up. By the end, Lynsey is not swimming alone, and for this film, that counts as progress.