Despite being one of the most ubiquitous stars of the 2010s, Jennifer Lawrence has retired from acting in recent years, pacing herself and choosing her projects more sparingly, if not perhaps more wisely. After breaking through with her star turn in Debra Granik’s realistic drama winter bone, Lawrence tended to favor larger, more lucrative projects, swapping star vehicles from JLaw with cherished Jennifer Lawrence Award-winning prestige dramas. Many still look back winter bone as the high point of his career, however, and with stars and audiences alike tending to favor dramas based on more naturalistic and relatable characters lately, Lawrence has seemingly opted to return to his roots by taking a role in Housemaid the first feature film by creator Lila Neugebauer, austerely titled Pavement.
From the start, Pavement could well have been directed by Granik herself, as we are introduced to Lynsey (Lawrence) unhappy, depressed and dealing with the aftermath of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a stroke while on active duty in Afghanistan. Recovery is slow, but she wants to get back to work, even if she can barely walk. As she is discharged from the hospital and returned to her family in New Orleans, it becomes increasingly clear that she is in no danger, she flees a troubled and unfulfilling life at home.
However, healing from trauma and injury cannot happen alone, and Lynsey soon meets auto mechanic James (an excellent Brian Tyree Henry) who is also struggling with similar feelings, and the two begin to relate. bind. The film shuts down the idea of any kind of romantic attachment between the two, instead focusing on the platonic bonds of the shared experience of trauma and disability, and the friendship that forms between them as they begin to open up.
Earlier this year, Channing Tatum starred in and directed the road movie drama Dog, also about a veteran struggling with PTSD and a disability, and unwillingly reassimilated into civilian life. This movie had some merit but was too marred by the inclusion of goofy hijinks to broaden its appeal. No such compromises Pavement, with its character study of someone who has cut themselves off from vulnerability and intimacy treated with the maturity and intelligence it deserves. Lawrence gives a surprisingly believable, restrained performance, portraying Lynsey with tact, and she has charming chemistry with her co-stars. For once, she seems like the up-and-coming young performer who broke through in 2010 and not “JLaw” superstar or “Academy Award Winner” Jennifer Lawrence.
Opposite her, Brian Tyree Henry once again proves his worth as a character actor with movie star charisma. It gives James bones and makes up for his outward charm and kindness with the requisite sense of regret and fatigue. It is in Lynsey’s interactions with the more minor characters that Pavement gain his wings though. The opening move in which a nearly silent Lynsey is nursed back to health by her nurse (Jayne Houdyshell), Lynsey’s awkward non-conversations with her mother (Linda Emond), and her eventual reconciliation with her addicted brother (Russell Harvard ) are all stellar plays, written and performed with a perfect balance of naturalism and eloquence.
Although often wholesome, Lynsey’s scenes with James are sometimes less than perfect in tone. Like almost every movie about the relationship between two people, there comes a point where Lynsey and James find themselves frustrated with each other and venting pent-up grievances. That’s when such films most often go awry, and that’s the case here. Lawrence and Tyree Henry both play it well, but the writing is most mundane and formulaic here, with this transition to the film’s third act being where cracks start to show.
There is also the matter of casting. Both Lawrence and Tyree Henry play characters with disabilities. Lynsey has mobility issues and James has lost a leg. Discussions have been raised in the past about established able-bodied stars taking opportunities that could easily have been attributed to disabled actors. Add to that the fact that Lawrence is a straight woman playing a lesbian, and the sincerity that underlies the film’s basis begins to feel less compelling. You don’t have to look any further than Russell Harvard’s outstanding performance in this very film to see how much casting actors with real disabilities can contribute to a film’s credibility.
Aside from these minor issues – and some of them aren’t so much issues with the film as observations about it –Pavement remains a poignant and moving drama. He explores his themes with tact and maturity and his characters are drawn with great affection and understanding. Writer-director Lila Neugebauer builds her character study well and for such a familiar story, the realism and insight she and her cast bring to the project elevates it considerably.