‘Causeway’: Jennifer Lawrence keeps it simple in a PTSD drama that rarely goes the obvious way

In a stripped-down performance, the Oscar winner plays a vet reeling from trauma and struggling to readjust to hometown life.

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Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) invites new friend James (Brian Tyree Henry) to join her in the pool she’s supposed to be cleaning in “Causeway.”

Apple TV+

Time and again in director Lila Neugebauer’s authentic, moving and quietly powerful PTSD drama “Causeway,” we’re presented with set-up scenes where we think we know what’s going to happen next.

  • Two people who are just getting to know one another and might be considering igniting the spark of a romance go to a raucous local pub for a burger and a beer. A rowdy local approaches their table, disdainfully sizes up the guy, figures he’s no challenge — and asks the woman to dance. Uh-oh, here comes the bar fight!
  • A woman who has a job cleaning pools in upscale neighborhoods invites a friend to come party at one such lavish backyard setup, because the owners are out of town and won’t be back for days. Oh boy, you just know those homeowners are going to return early.
  • Returning home from combat service overseas, a soldier moves in with her single mother, who apparently hasn’t stopped partying since her teenage days and acts more like the daughter than the mother in the relationship. We know what’s going to happen here: There’s going to be an explosive clash one night, and the two will probably never talk again.
‘Causeway’

Untitled

Apple TV+ presents a film directed by Lila Neugebauer and written by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel and Elizabeth Sanders. Rated R (for some language, sexual references and drug use). Running time: 92 minutes. Available Friday on Apple TV+.

This is the impressive thing about the screenplay from Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, the sure-handed and subtle direction by Neugebauer and the nuanced performances from a cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry: It’s no great spoiler to reveal none of those scenes play out exactly like we might expect. Sometimes the choices a film eschews are as valuable as the choices the film makes. In the case of “Causeway,” the result is a thoughtful and realistic slice of life that is set in present times but has the distinct vibe of indie films from a generation or two ago.

Lawrence is heartbreakingly good in a stripped-down performance as Lynsey, a soldier returning to the United States after suffering a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. Lynsey doesn’t have any visible scars, but she has to relearn how to walk on her own, how to drive a car, how to perform simple everyday tasks — and she has to cope with the darkness of PTSD that often envelopes her. (Jayne Houdyshell is terrific as the compassionate but pragmatic temporary caregiver who does all she can to help Lynsey, until it’s time for Lynsey to go home.)

Lynsey returns to the small, ramshackle house in New Orleans where she grew up, and the way she pauses before entering tells us there was likely trauma in her life, in that house, long before she joined the Army. (And is perhaps the reason she signed up.) Her father is long gone, her mother Gloria (Linda Emond) is the aforementioned middle-aged hard-partier — and whatever happened to Lynsey’s brother (we’ll eventually find out), he’s no longer around either.

When Lynsey’s old truck breaks down, she meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), who runs an auto body shop, walks with a pronounced limp and discovers he has a degree-of-separation connection to Lynsey, in that she played basketball in high school against his sister. (Like Lynsey’s brother, James’ sister no longer seems to be in the picture.) They recognize in each other a kind of wounded, misfit-soul, outcast spirit, and a friendship is born.

Lynsey gets a job cleaning pools, James occasionally gives her a ride to work, and they expand their relationship to include grabbing a snow cone, dropping in on one of the local New Orleans nighteries — and long, revealing talks late into the night. Still, though Lynsey finds a good measure of comfort in her friendship with James, she desperately hopes her neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) will sign off on the paperwork that will allow her to redeploy, even though it’s obvious she’s not ready to return to combat and most likely never should. (In one of many pitch-perfect vignettes, Lynsey walks to the edge of a crowded public pool with the trepidation of a 12-year-old who has just moved to a new town and doesn’t know a single soul. At times, the very notion of life in all its boisterous, unpredictable, normal chaos seems daunting to her.)

Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar-winning actress who has been a part of two huge franchises in the “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” films, so it’s easy to forget she got her start in low-budget independent films such as “Garden Party” and “Winter’s Bone.” Lawrence is spectacularly good in returning to those roots, and the versatile Brian Tyree Henry delivers some of the best work of his career in what is essentially a leading-man role — not that we’re saying there’s a romance between James and Lynsey here. Not that we’re NOT saying it either. Let’s just say that like so many elements of “Causeway,” the results are rarely predictable but always believable.

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