Causeway movie review: Jennifer Lawrence makes a spectacular comeback

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Dir: Lila Neugebauer. With: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Jayne Houdyshell, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Harvard. 15.94 mins.

Pavement does not concern actress Jennifer Lawrence. But in its own weird way, it serves as a metaphor for Lawrence herself. It’s about a young woman who explodes – albeit in a war rather than Hollywood – and then has to pick up the pieces. It’s Lawrence’s first starring role since 2018, when a series of widely hated projects (Chris Pratt’s space romance Passengers; the masterful-hated biblical allegory Mother!) collided with her enormous fame and sent her on a self-imposed career hiatus. All the noise made it easy to forget how good she was at keeping quiet. In Pavement, director Lila Neugebauer dwells on the minute changes in her star’s expression, her shrinking melancholy. We haven’t seen this side of Lawrence since starring in the 2010 neo-western. winter bone. It’s like going back to basics.

Lawrence is Lynsey, a US Army engineer who is sent back to her native New Orleans after barely surviving an explosion in Afghanistan. Between cleaning swimming pools and playing a memory game to soothe the effects of a brain injury, she meets James (from Atlanta Brian Tyree Henry), an equally haunted mechanic who fixes his mother’s car when it breaks down. They hang around. They smoke. They slowly reveal their respective traumas. Lynsey isn’t quite sure what to do with herself, but assumes she’ll have to go back to her military job – whether it kills her or not.

It is more or less that. Pavement is not necessarily anti-conspiracy. The script – co-credited to novelist Ottessa Moshfegh at its most unusual pace – runs through a traditional three-act structure, complete with an inciting incident that triggers a last-minute threat to Lynsey and James’ blossoming friendship. But it’s otherwise stripped of the frills, instead finding a smooth, understated pace where long-running conflicts ambiguously simmer rather than explode.

Neugebauer, an early feature director with a background in theater, could have made her debut much flashier than it is (scenes set in Afghanistan would have been left on the cutting room floor), but smartly , she spends a lot chasing time: Pavement has two incredibly gifted performers at its center and knows they are the ones you want to see.

Lawrence is brilliant here – tired, anxious, wonderfully indifferent. Henry, meanwhile, is an ocean of bottled up sadness. There’s a scene halfway through Pavement in which James talks about the accident that left him legless, but few of the details – or the horrific tangents he spawned in the aftermath – are actually verbalized. Instead, Henry makes every silent space in James’s narrative feel like a sledgehammer.

More than anything, however, Pavement feels in conversation with his leading lady. Lawrence was so close to becoming the kind of celebrity who fires any pretense of transformation in an actor’s work; where you just stare at a celebrity in a wig, or accent for effect. In this self-imposed break from 2018’s pulpy spy thriller red sparrow – a role in last year’s divisive asteroid comedy Don’t look up notwithstanding – Lawrence seems to have found his place. Her performance marks a return to the kind of textured naturalism that brought her so much success in the first place; it not only shows her past, but where she’s likely headed next. As a movie, Pavement feels a bit too lighthearted to earn kudos and will likely end up being a footnote in Lawrence’s career as a whole. But it may be the most important film she has ever made.

‘Causeway’ is in select theaters and can be streamed via Apple TV Plus starting September 4

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