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Oscar Season Jennifer Lawrence Is Back

In ‘Causeway,’ the actress’s command of a scene is once again on display. But after a couple of years away from the spotlight, she projects more inner strength now.

Getty Images/Apple TV/Ringer illustration

Jennifer Lawrence built her career on embodying a classical kind of heroine. She was the self-sacrificing sister in The Hunger Games, putting herself at risk not only for her family but for a wider community and even the greater good of all humanity. She did the same earlier on in Winter’s Bone, with the same stoicism and courage. In Causeway—her latest film, which hits Apple TV+ on Friday and which she also produced through her company Excellent Cadaver—she returns to this kind of character, but with a more holistic and perhaps realistic approach, acknowledging this time around that there’s a cost to forgetting your pain and yourself.

At the beginning of Causeway, however, Lawrence doesn’t display her now-trademark idea of strength. We meet Lynsey (Lawrence) as she enters a rehab center after her time in the military. She goes through a series of physical exercises to try to regain control of her body after suffering brain damage during an attack in Afghanistan, relearning basic coordination skills and the ability to walk unaided. She’s clearly resentful of the situation, having to rely on a nurse to go to the bathroom or drive. Yet there’s no self-pity in Lawrence’s performance. The hurt and the shame are tangible, but so is the tendency toward self-preservation and isolation. Throughout the movie, first-time feature director Lila Neugebauer avoids pathos and instead focuses on the brutal reality of rehabilitation, the hopes dashed by relapses, and the terror of being betrayed by one’s own body.

Once Lynsey is well enough to leave the center, she semi-reluctantly moves back to her hometown, New Orleans, to live with her mother. There, another, deeper kind of rehabilitation starts to unfold as soon as she steps through the door. The house is empty and unkept; Lynsey falls asleep on her old teenage bed. In the middle of the night, her mother, Gloria (Linda Emond), finally comes in: She’d gotten the date of her daughter’s arrival wrong, which she manages to subtly blame Lynsey for. She leaves the room without offering a proper greeting, leaving Lawrence looking like a kid again, another Katniss too mature for her age, only more blasé and less angry now. Lynsey now must face this wound of abandonment and neglect.

Penned by Elizabeth Sanders as well as novelists Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, Causeway’s script reveals Lynsey’s character and its origins gradually by staying in the present moment and observing how she operates in the world rather than offering flashbacks or long explanations. Although still prone to spasms, Lynsey decides to find a job immediately and ends up cleaning swimming pools, as she used to when she was younger. She replies to her new boss’s instructions with a firm “yes, sir” and moves with an efficiency that feels excessive. In such simple moments, we see how Lynsey has learned to rely on herself and push her body in order to feel in control. Her self-motivation and independence, paradoxically, veer toward self-neglect.

Gloria’s indifference extends to her car, and Lynsey finds herself having to take it to a repair shop mid-drive. Through her physicality, Lawrence translates how challenging this kind of slightly stressful but not uncommon situation has become for Lynsey since her accident: She starts to panic, and has to cool herself down and park as soon as possible. Yet even more striking than her evident trauma is how this new vulnerability scares and angers her. Perhaps it is this combination of determination and fragility that mechanic James (the ever-amazing Brian Tyree Henry) recognizes in her. Neugebauer stages their encounter like an awkward, wonky meet-cute, a dance between respectful distance and generosity. Receiving James’s support first as a business transaction and then as a kind gesture, Lynsey seems to lower her guard and finally let someone in, even if just a little.

After the pandemic interrupted the shooting of the film midway, Lawrence and Tyree Henry had extra time to develop the relationship between their characters, which has resulted in an unusual level of subtlety, but also originality and honesty. The connection between Lynsey and James is neither romantic nor carnal, yet they share a sense of feeling at odds with their bodies. (James lost one of his legs in a car accident and now walks with a prosthetic.) Neugebauer films their friendly dates with an attention to the silent moments, when ease begins to flow through them and they relax more and more in proximity to one another. These dates are often spurred by Lynsey calling up James to get his help carrying things or driving somewhere. Such acts of service feel especially meaningful to both of them: Lynsey is learning to find support in someone else, and James is relieving the long-held guilt and sense of worthlessness caused by his accident.

What makes Causeway more than a hopeful story about rebuilding oneself thanks to friendship, however, is that it doesn’t ignore the grasp that the past has on the present. Both Lynsey and James struggle to imagine a future that could be any different than what they’ve known, in particular because of their respective families. Even as they get closer and, in a moment of drunken reverie, contemplate a new way of life together, they carry their stories of who they are and what that means with them. The film intelligently challenges these notions, going way beyond the idea of trauma as an unwanted burden to imbue it with a sense of personal responsibility. Could it be that what stopped (and still stops) Lynsey and James from facing their challenges is their tendency to run away from the pain these difficulties cause them? What would happen now if they could let all emotions run through their wounded bodies, instead of staying numb?

It isn’t a coincidence that Lawrence first made her mark as a physical performer in an action franchise. Yet she rarely imposes herself in obvious ways—her physical presence runs deeper. It’s her self-possession, her natural ability to stand her ground and hold the camera’s gaze that has made her the ideal modern heroine, quietly confident in her mind and body. It’s this same innate assurance that she challenges in Causeway, and uses to tell a different kind of story. Lynsey tries to stay in control at all times, until her body starts to disobey her. What she then needs to learn is to use that inner strength to courageously give in to the world around her.

If emotion is energy in motion, Lynsey’s love of water and of swimming in the luxury pools she cleans feels like a sign that she is capable of letting the ebbs and flows of her feelings run through her. It’s no coincidence that when she invites James for a swim, all his vulnerability and joy come rushing back. Their bodies, gently held by the water, finally feel not only like safe places to be, but safe havens for each other, too.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.