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"Causeway " movie review by Dan Webster

Creating effective drama requires artists of all stripes to walk a delicate balance. Whether they work on the page, on the stage, or on the screen, they must tackle serious, often complicated, emotions while avoiding storylines and characterizations that lack authenticity.

Let me cite and example of what NOT to do. Think of your standard episode of “CSI: Miami.” We all wait for the moment when David Caruso’s character Horatio Caine slips on his sunglasses and delivers a clever quip, such as, “At the end of the day, if we don't hang together, we die alone.” Then before the hour is over, he solves the crime.

Entertaining though this may be, subtle it is not. And yet it represents the kind of melodrama that we’ve come to expect from mainstream television shows: a caricature of real life, one that serves as an escapist alternative to the typical depressing facts reported on the eleven-o’clock news.

In her film “Causeway,” director Lila Neugebauer spurns such exaggeration. Instead, her film is a study of two characters who, for reasons personal to each, are attempting to rebuild their lives following serious trauma.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, a soldier recovering from a brain injury suffered while serving in Afghanistan. When we first meet her, she’s living with a paid caretaker, undergoing rehab and working hard to regain the ability simply to walk without falling down.

Soon she’s able to improve enough so that she can ride the bus to New Orleans, where her mother (played by Linda Emond) disappoints her – we suspect not for the first time – by not showing up at the station to greet her. What fuels our suspicion? Because when Lynsey finds her way home, and her mother offers an excuse, she doesn’t react. This kind of disregard, if not outright abuse, clearly is what Lynsey has come to expect from mom.

Furthermore, it’s the kind of disappointment she has tried hard to escape. To that end, with the intent of returning to the service, and likely the war, she works hard to regain her strength. Part of her plan involves getting a job. And it’s after scoring a position with a pool-cleaning service, when her truck breaks down, that she encounters the man who will change her life, James (played by Brian Tyree Henry), the owner of an auto-repair shop.

Expressing it that way, though – “the man who will change her life” – makes “Causeway” sound as if it’s going to follow a standard storyline. Maybe that of two mismatched characters finding love, etc. But the script offers Neugebauer both more and less than mere clichés to work with.

First, James is Black, yet the subject of race is never brought up. Second, Lynsey identifies as lesbian, though that, too, never becomes an issue that “Causeway” feels the need to pursue. Instead, what the film explores is the source of grief that each character works hard to hide.

For Lynsey, it was the war wound she suffered, the kind that – exacerbated by family history – hangs on emotionally long after the physical scars heal. For James, the experience is similar, his pain caused by a car accident on the Causeway Bridge that spans 24 miles of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchartrain – an accident, by the way, that caused him to lose much more than just his left leg.

It's together, haltingly, and even on James’ part, reluctantly, that the two develop a friendship – one that holds the promise of being a source of healing for both, if only they can trust it … even if trust, for both, doesn’t come easily.

It’s been a dozen years since Lawrence made her first splash with “Winter’s Bone,” her screen persona shaped since then by the “Hunger Games” franchise and her Oscar-winning turn in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Besides playing the character Paper Boi in the FX series “Atlanta,” Henry has snared supporting roles in a number of feature films.

In this small, touching movie, both are just what they need to be. Through them, Neugebauer captures the way people really are – tentative, cautious, emotionally impaired – yet willing to reach out in a quest to find connection … a kind of personal causeway … and, maybe, ultimately, a sense of peace.