New Orleans Film Festival, 2022: "Causeway"
Past traumas and present soul searching mark two individuals making their way through the Big Easy in this dramatic feature.
(Note: Please excuse any background TV noises in the audio voiceover - I probably should’ve re-recorded, but maybe it’s livelier with the mistakes in it. Maybe.)
Causeway, the new film from critical darling studio A24 and streaming service Apple TV+ (where it is now available to subscribers) is not so surprisingly not about our Lake Pontchartrain bridge. It is, however, a movie about personal progression. About moving forward from trauma and about giving oneself a sense of rebirth. Actually surprising, it’s a film with three lead characters, played by Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, and yes, New Orleans itself.
After suffering a brain injury from an IED attack in Afghanistan, Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) is brought back stateside to begin rehabilitation with an aging nurse, before heading to her childhood home of New Orleans. Lynsey is a frustrated young woman, and it’s not simply because of her health, as things become clear when visiting her mother. Still reeling from her injury, Lynsey befriends car mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry) who expresses his pain through exhaustion and distraction. The two click instantly and show each other great patience and greater understanding as if they had been old friends all along. It’s spectacular how Lawrence and Tyree Henry find each other and are able to discover the different but even pasts that their characters share. I prefer to think of their rehearsals as more like coffee dates or, rather, talks over drinks. Chums, they come off as. And oh so easily. It’s nice and lovely.
What of the city? For me, New Orleans is just as much a character in the film, any film, as it is a destination or setting. Even in movies like Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, NOLA plays a part - like when Tom Cruise punches a man so hard he breaks his neck, it’s all during a street parade, while the fight happens on the rooftops of the French Quarter. There, the city was used colorfully. In Causeway, New Orleans is the reflecting pool for Lynsey and James. In other words, it’s a mirror to see their past selves and a sheen of clarity for their potential future. No resident, past or present, needs this movie or this critic to explain the trauma that has happened and still happens in the area, nor does anyone need to be told we’re resilient and can make tomorrow better. Of course.
In her feature directorial debut, Lila Neugebauer gets these frustrations so well. Never in Causeway is there presumption or smugness or naive optimism. Lynsey worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, doing projects involving water systems. James is an active member of his community, showing everyone a good time when necessary. They are but two individuals, working and living in a city of other individuals, who likely have similar stories to tell from the stoops of their own shotgun homes. Causeway is New Orleans through and through, and in the best possible way: By not being a tourist about it.
It’s safe to say that I really love the script here. And the observations. The direction? Maybe less vulnerability and foot-dragging on the themes of PTSD when it comes to Lynsey, James, and New Orleans, and more confidence in the characters. Lynsey has two parental-ish figures at this stage of her life; her rehab nurse played with grace by Jayne Houdyshell, and her biological mom, played with part detachment and part affection by Linda Emond. The contrasts are immediate, where the stranger is the “mother” and the mother is the “stranger.” One prefers to be a friend, and the other tries to maintain the boundary of being a friend. And what is James to Lynsey? I worried that Tyree Henry would be a magical catalyst existing just for Lawrence’s performance, but instead, both actors have weight and gravity to work with, no matter how quiet their scenes get or how open the movie tends to be. It’s all in the actor’s interpretation in this one. New Orleans performs as the anchor, and the people play everything else out.
The movie may put off some audiences due to its own nearly hands-off subtleties, especially for viewers who need a familiar resolution to experience. Technically, “resolution” isn’t as important in this film as are the connections and its forward motion, but I’d be willing to bet that closing a movie almost mid-page might confuse more than it fulfills. Causeway is an entirely fulfilling picture, where character balances with drama in a profound blend. Personally, I recommend gazing - just gazing, staring - at and into the film, and letting yourself take part in the conversations and the words unsaid between conversations and sentences. Brian Tyree Henry, as always, blows up the movie with grand charm, burrowing his way through the eyes, and moving progressively inward for a spell or two. Jennifer Lawrence is, as always, able to deliver just what a role needs and a little more. Never theatrical, but rightly real. And New Orleans, as always, isn’t just where parties happen; it’s where everything happens. It’s more like America than Superman. 4/5
Causeway played at the 2022 New Orleans Film Festival, had a theatrical run at the Prytania Uptown, and is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
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