Above: Jennifer Lawrence in “Causeway,” now showing on Apple TV+.

By Mark Fields

Jennifer Lawrence became a star with heroine/anti-heroine roles in big flashy movie franchises, The Hunger Games and X-Men. But she returns to her indie roots with Causeway, a quiet but resonant film crafted by first-time director Lila Neugebauer. Lawrence plays Lynsey, a returning Afghanistan vet recovering from TBI (traumatic brain injury). As she struggles to regain her life, she strikes up an unlikely but rich friendship with James, an auto mechanic with traumas of his own. The core of the film – aptly set in New Orleans, a city that knows something about trauma – is the halting dynamic between these two characters desperate for connection but guarded against further hurt. Neugebauer’s theater background informs the subtle, compelling interplay of these two strong film actors. Great supporting performances by Linda Emond as Lynsey’s mother, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Dr. Lucas, and Jayne Houdyshell as a transitioning caregiver.

Q&A: A Few Words with Director Lila Neugebauer

Causeway, a new film streaming on Apple + TV, stars Jennifer Lawrence as Lynsey, a returning Afghanistan veteran recovering from traumatic brain injury. Lynsey finds that her physical healing is just one step in a long, complex process of finding her way to some sense of stability.

Causeway is the feature-film debut of Lila Neugebauer, a stage director acclaimed for her Tony Award-nominated production of The Waverly Gallery on Broadway as well as other work off-Broadway and in regional theaters. She has also directed episodes of several TV series, including Maid and The Sex Lives of College Girls.

Neugebauer came to the region in October to see her film screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival, where she spoke with our film writer Mark Fields.

Lila Neugebauer and Jennifer Lawrence in “Causeway.”

What attracted you to this story? Were you involved in the crafting of the screenplay?

I’m a civilian but when I first saw the original screenplay (an adaptation of Elizabeth Sanders’ novella “Red White and Water”), I was startled by how connected I felt to these characters’ inner lives. I was also drawn to the lyricism of the script, which I found to be an invitation to quiet poetry.

Elizabeth had written a screenplay based on her story. We brought in the team of Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel to help. We needed to consult with people informed about the phenomenon of traumatic brain injury (TBI) – medical experts, veterans – and that research was very informative in reshaping the screenplay. Jennifer (Lawrence) and Brian (Tyree Henry) were very involved in what I would call contemplative workshopping of the screenplay.

Given the small cast and dialogue-centric nature of the story, how does Causeway compare to your theatrical and TV work?

It was the intimacy of this story that attracted me. I have enjoyed a broad range of stylistic work in the theater, but my joy in this project is that its core endeavor that feels very aligned to my theater work.

This quieter character-driven story is a something of a departure for both of your lead actors. How did they approach the project? (Lawrence was a producer for the project)

Both Jennifer and Brian felt deeply connected to these characters, and it was a really personal project for both of them. I’ve known Brian since drama school. He is an actor of unbelievable range, who lives in so many registers. He was the first and only person I considered for the role. Jennifer responded to the more intimate nature of the film; it was especially appealing for her given her other recent work. 

Several of your supporting actors (Linda Emond, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jayne Houdyshell) are known for their stage work. How did that experience inform the process for Causeway?

I knew every member of the supporting cast, either personally or their work. It was a real benefit to the movie because we belong to the same culture, share the same language. That was important to Causeway because most of the film is subtextual, what’s really happening is happening between the lines, not in them. The spare tone of the film reflects a foundation for both me and the actors in theater work. We were building a tapestry upon the richness of the characters’ inner lives.

Why did you and the screenwriter set the story in New Orleans? Is there something about the location that illuminates this story?

Elizabeth is originally from New Orleans, so we both knew that New Orleans has a singularly rich culture. Further, the city has certainly seen its fair share of collective trauma so it seems appropriate for this story about trauma to be set there. There is also this tremendous resilience and pride of place there. Because of that, I see the city as another character in the story. But we consciously chose to use locations that didn’t play up the familiar aspects of New Orleans. We wanted a portrait of the city that felt lived in, not touristy.

Why this story now? What does it have to say to viewers that they need to hear?

One of my hopes for the movie is that veterans will recognize some truth in it, and that viewers will find it valuable in understanding the burden of TBI. I think Causeway functions as an invitation to patience. It also speaks about the importance of connection between people. I find it endlessly fascinating that there is this human tendency to self-protect, to reach out and then quickly retreat. Connection to others can be a way to respond to this curious aspect of our nature.