Her soul split down the middle. Her personality was another costume she had to put on. She would fool them all right. At what cost? Princess Diana grieved the lost life she used to know. She has now been at Althorp for a long time but the mirage of her childhood is just a passing ghostly visage. Now her mind, body, and soul are occupied by being royal enough. The woman in crisis: one of the favorite stories for men to tell about women. Pablo Larraín told this story about Diana in last year’s Spencer. Once you’ve seen the movie, you are convinced: only Kristen Stewart can play this part, in this way, in this movie. She is an emotional powerhouse, a wrecking ball of pent-up energy strong enough to topple the royal family, she’s a proxy for the audience in this world we’ll never understand, and it all works because the performance, and direction of the performance, are totally immaculate.
Maybe we doubted Kristen Stewart once upon a time. Back in her Twilight era, when it seemed like she and Robert Pattinson were destined for Young Adult fiction fame and little else, and then spent the entirety of the time since doing everything but those roles. They are the ultimate modern example of actors breaking out of an audience’s preconceived notions about what kind of performance they are allowed to do. They got away with doing other things, right out of the gate, because the secret is that even in these less renowned movies, they were the movie: we watched because of their spark, their engaging chemistry, and their on-screen fire that has persisted in every movie since. Stewart can play as powerful of a figure as Princess Diana. Robert Pattinson can keep a lighthouse and hold his own one-on-one with Willem Dafoe. They have both broken the mold of the Young Adult star that can transcend their most populist cinema and become associated with art-house movies.
Jennifer Lawrence is still trying. The headline for half of the reviews of Causeway ought to mention her and her return to her “indie roots”. That’s hardly by accident, it’s the design of this film. Causeway is a film about Jennifer Lawrence being in smaller projects again. This is the film’s synopsis and it’s raison d’être. Can Jennifer Lawrence shoulder a movie that is just about her acting in a movie that’s not The Hunger Games or X-Men? It is a rhetorical question. We all know about Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) but we must ask the question because a generational talent like Lawrence has only produced one great movie in the last decade and maybe only three great movies in her whole career (let’s include 2010’s Winter’s Bone & 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook).
The answer is self-evident because we have a few examples: Jennifer Lawrence can act. Here we arrive at Causeway, a film about Jennifer Lawrence acting. She acts alongside Brian Tyree Henry who can also act. They have great chemistry and make sense together on-screen. Their characters are both mortally wounded by their pasts. Lawrence plays a soldier who has been sent home after suffering a traumatic brain injury in the war (Afghanistan, but doesn’t matter) and all she wants to do is go back to war. Her return home to New Orleans quickly explains why she would rather go to war. Her mother is not very present, her brother is losing a fight with drugs, she does not have basic commodities, and now her truck is breaking down. She takes it into a shop where she meets a mechanic played by Henry. Would be an ideal meet-cute in another movie but that’s not the kind of movie Causeway is.
Lawrence and Henry’s characters enter into a sweet friendship. They get what they need from each other. A simple framework of companionship that allows them to lower their guard enough that they can help each other process the scars of their pasts. The film is easy-going and unhurried, not especially worried about having a plot, or a beginning, middle, or end. It just floats by on these two performances and the muted blues of New Orleans poolsides where they have many of their chats. The film does have good supporting characters around them but it’s best taken as a straightforward two-hander about these wounded people who learn to trust each other and get what they want in the end. It’s low-stakes and low-conflict filmmaking that is clearly outlined by director Lila Neugebauer’s past work on theater productions. The project never soars in any compartment, instead gliding by only out of the ethos that the director is able to channel from their performers. It’s a simple good film. It would be a kind of résumé film for a new performer. But for actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry, it’s a statement of intent. Put them in more indie movies. They are specialists.