Technically, Don’t Look Up marked Jennifer Lawrence’s return to acting after a three-year hiatus, but I don’t think it should count, because it was unbearable, but also because it had such an overstuffed, high-profile ensemble that Lawrence was just part of the crowd. Her new movie, Causeway, which just had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a much more interesting showcase, as well as a possible indication of the kind of parts she wants to pursue in the next stage of her career. The film, which is getting a November 4 release in theaters from Apple Original Films, is the first from theater director Lila Neugebauer, and is a subdued drama about a woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury while deployed in Afghanistan. In its stripped-down lack of sentimentality, it brings to mind Winter’s Bone, the 2010 Debra Granik indie that launched Lawrence on her way to movie stardom.
Winter’s Bone has a more propulsive plot than Causeway, which is essentially a hangout movie, but both movies star Lawrence as a somber young woman pushed into self-reliance by a home life fractured by substance abuse. While they’re set in different regions of the country, Winter’s Bone has a scene in which Lawrence’s character wanders into an army recruiter’s office to find out whether enlistment, and the signing bonus she’d receive, could solve her problems while allowing her to see more of the world beyond the Ozarks. Lynsey, the protagonist of Causeway, is essentially a version of that character who says yes, serving with the Army Corps of Engineers in order to feel purposeful, but more importantly, to escape from the suffocating atmosphere of the New Orleans home she is now reluctantly returning to. Small in scope and unglamorous — Lawrence spends most of Causeway kicking around the city makeup-free in jeans and old T-shirts — the role allows Lawrence to do some delicate work.
She’s good, too. Lawrence spent the last decade alternating between playing a preternaturally mature dystopian teenager and a slew of women noticeably older than the actor’s actual age. It’s nice to see her at 32 and having lost the last traces of babyfaced fullness to her cheeks, playing a character who is still young but decidedly a grown-up, perturbed to have found herself abruptly dumped back where she began. It’s not a performance that seems likely to get her awards talk, despite its festival presence and prime fall release date — Causeway is so spare and Lindsay is such a stubborn character of few words and many banked resentments that it can be hard to appreciate the full, complicated depths of her feelings toward, say, her flaky mother (Linda Emond). But it’s a part that suits Lawrence, allowing her to lean into unfussy, intimate work, especially in the scenes where she shares the screen with an absolutely phenomenal Brian Tyree Henry, who plays James, an auto shop owner who’s experienced a life-changing injury and loss of his own.
Whenever the two spend time together, laying groundwork for a budding friendship while tiptoeing around each other’s sore spots, the movie leaves behind any of its occasional traces of indie affectation to become a lovely portrayal of adult loneliness and the way the desire to be known can war with the desire to project yourself. Lawrence and Henry have a warm, natural chemistry, and that rapport really seems to guide where the movie ends up, instead of the other way around. It may not set the world on fire, but Causeway is a welcome reminder of how compelling Lawrence can be, as well as a promising indication that she’s willing to seek out smaller projects and work with emerging directors for the right roles.