The early scenes in Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway” find Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) in the first phase of a long healing process. An Army engineer who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan, Lynsey — with the help of a patient health aide (Jayne Houdyshell) — must relearn the basic functions of daily life, and teach her body to work again.
Lawrence, somber and subdued, gradually coaxes her character into view. Lynsey emerges from a state of anxious blankness, recovering language, memory, physical coordination and the contours of her personality. Returning home to New Orleans, she moves in with her mother (Linda Emond), who is too preoccupied with other matters to pay much attention to her daughter.
Not that Lynsey needs babysitting. She pressures her doctor (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to clear her for redeployment. Lynsey is tough, solitary and self-sufficient, attributes Lawrence has shown before — notably in the “Hunger Games” movies and in her breakthrough film, “Winter’s Bone” — but rarely in such a low-key, non-heroic mode.
The satisfactions of “Causeway,” Neugebauer’s debut feature (the script is by Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh), come from watching Lawrence and her co-star, Brian Tyree Henry, trading quiet, insightful bits of acting. Henry plays James, who owns the repair shop where Lynsey brings her balky old pickup truck. Recognizing each other as fellow loners — and also, perhaps unconsciously, as fellow sufferers — James and Lynsey start hanging out together.
Lynsey takes a job cleaning swimming pools, and she and James spend off-hours drinking beer, smoking weed and floating around at the homes of clients who are conveniently out of town. Hanging out this way is a pleasant respite from the stresses and struggles of existence — for James and Lynsey, and for the audience too. But having brought them together, the movie isn’t quite sure what to do with them.
James has lost part of a leg in a car crash that killed someone he loved. Lynsey is also haunted by the loss of a family member. The symmetry of their physical and psychological wounds is perhaps too neatly arranged. The bond that develops between them — and the ways that it is, inevitably, tested — is rooted in shared trauma, which is to say in a screenwriting conceit.
“Causeway” is both thin and heavy-handed, its plot overly diagramed and its characters inadequately fleshed out. The burden of making it credible falls disproportionately on Henry and Lawrence, superb actors who do what they can to bring the script’s static and fuzzy ideas about pain, alienation and the need for connection to something that almost resembles life.
Rated R. Cursing and cannabis. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters and available to watch on Apple TV+.