TIFF: As great as she is, Brian Tyree Henry could be even better.

It’s so good to see Jennifer Lawrence playing a real person again. Despite the quiet strength she brought to the “Hunger Games” franchise and the extravagant joy she extracted from “Mother!” and “Red Sparrow,” a long string of dreadful “X-Men” sequels and over-the-top David O. Russell fiascos blunted one of America’s brightest young movie stars to the point that he became easy to forget how good she can be.

If nothing else, the microscopically small but sincerely moving “Causeway” — which the actress also produced under her Excellent Cadaver banner — offers a strong reminder of what Lawrence can bring to the screen when cast as a recognizable human being as opposed to a shapeshifting mutant or David O. Russell character (sorry, but “American Hustle” deserves its own separate ding).

Corps Engineer Lynsey wanted to leave her hometown so badly that she went to Afghanistan; there she suffered a brain injury that forced her to return. Lawrence’s raw but restrained performance in “Causeway” also marks a return to the genre of hardscrabble indie drama that launched her career, and a return to the kind of steadfast, open-faced, recklessly stoic survivors she portrays with natural presence. from someone. whose own life hangs in the balance. Her turn as Lynsey shows that Lawrence knows her own strengths and isn’t afraid to make herself vulnerable to show it.

That’s not why this ultra-humble character study—sheared to the point that you can almost see her shudder—works despite her petty ambitions. “Causeway” holds up because Lawrence might not even be the best performance in the movie.

Filmed in 2019 and shaped during the pandemic, “Causeway” begins with Lynsey returning home from war and receiving what any American theater fan would consider a hero’s welcome: several weeks of rehab with Jayne Houdyshell. When Sharon first takes charge of Lynsey, the young engineer is just beginning to recover from an IED explosion. She can’t walk on her own or even find her mouth with her toothbrush, but progress is rapid for someone eager to recommit. First director Lila Neugebauer’s camera begins to move as Lynsey does, and it’s not long before the stark wide shots of the film’s opening scenes give way to a more relaxed flow as Lynsey returns to New -Orléans and begins cleaning swimming pools as she waits to be declared fit for reclassification.

Home is not a place that Lynsey finds particularly relaxing. She tells Sharon that someone will pick her up from the bus station, but no one does. Her father is irrelevant, she only talks about her brother in the past tense, and her mother (Linda Emond, nuanced in a role that seems to have lost a few layers in the edit) seems hopelessly distracted and involved; it may be a defense mechanism she developed in response to imploding family dynamics. Or maybe it was Lynsey who turned inward when things went wrong, hiding in camouflage and running off to fix broken things halfway around the world.

Fixing yourself will be more difficult. Her eagerness finds her driving a car sooner than she’s ready, which in turn directs her to the body shop where she encounters a man with internal (and external) damage of his own. . James Aucoin is played by the great Brian Tyree Henry, and it’s certainly a thing of beauty to see him play a real person again (as “Atlanta” continues to be a TV showcase for Henry’s generational talent, the ‘Widows’ actor has spent the past four years whipping up studio fare like ‘Eternals’ and ‘Bullet Train,’ although he was understandably the better part of the two).

The complexion of this film is entirely changed by the arrival of James on the scene, as he and Lynsey immediately gravitate towards each other through the magnetic force of mutual understanding. Neither character would be able to explain whatever forces in the universe might galvanize their unexpected bond — whatever physical attraction James might have for Lynsey is tempered by his self-loathing — and so the moment they meet is also the moment “Causeway” comes alive with dramatic possibility. Alex Somers’ glassy ambient score has already told us what kind of movie this is going to be (a delicate, understated indie drama that’s deep in pain but still leaves room for hope), and yet James and Lynsey reunite from a way that allows for a rare life force to seep into the story’s ultra-predictable trajectory.

Credited to Luke Goebel, Elizabeth Sanders and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” writer Ottessa Moshfegh, the film’s uneven but insightful storyline essentially follows its two main characters as they have a series of hushed, deep conversations – but not too in-depth – in different hangouts across residential NOLA. Some shots from recent Lawrence and Henry films might cost more than this entire film, but the city of New Orleans is adding value where it can, with the help of legendary production designer Jack Fisk and the director of Diego García’s “Wildlife” photography, which tease an emotional texture from even the most mundane places. The changes of scenery gradually trace the tectonic formation of a new friendship. She is eager to run away from her pain, when he can barely walk without betraying his (the details of which are best left to Henry to share); over time, they push each other in opposite directions, while coming closer to a shared sense of belonging.

Nobody’s reinventing the wheel here, but Lawrence and Henry are such a prickly, believable pair of broken people that even scenes where nothing happens seem charged with a healing electricity. These are characters who’ve held their breath for most of their lives, and there’s a powerful humanity to how they finally give themselves permission to exhale (even though the one scene where they fight is so fantastic that she left me wishing the rest of the movie hadn’t been so quiet).

Lawrence knows exactly where to open Lynsey, and Henry is awfully awesome as he grapples with the wants and needs of a man who doesn’t always believe he deserves to be alive; the scenes in which James talks about his pain are so powerful because Henry’s downcast gaze and half-swallowed voice let you feel his character risking more of the same abandonment that has followed him for so long. Her tragedy happened on the pavement, and yet – to put a finer point than Neugebauer’s sweet film – it’s the roads that Lynsey and James open up for each other that lead them to their deepest points. down.

This might all seem sketchy in lesser hands, but Neugebauer gives Lawrence and Henry the space they need to make the movie’s characters feel like real people. As a result, the inevitable glimmer of hope they share at the end is as honest as the pain that guided them there.

Category B-

“Causeway” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 and Apple will release it in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, November 4.

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