Toronto 2022 Dispatch: Causeway & Return to Seoul
Fittingly, the feature directorial debut of Lila Neugebauer — best known in the theater world, particularly for an excellent 2018 Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery — is an acting showcase. A more fitting utilization of Jennifer Lawrence’s prodigious talents than last year’s misfire Don’t Look Up, Causeway tells the story of wounded veteran Lynsey (Lawrence) who returns home to New Orleans as she recovers from major trauma and waits to redeploy. While there, she meets auto mechanic James (the great Brian Tyree Henry), a man with plenty of demons of his own, and the two form a friendship rooted in an easy recognition of the need for perseverance. Shot on location under a variety of difficult conditions, Causeway has a palpable sense of place, but mostly serves as an excuse to watch Lawrence and Henry play off each other in brilliant fashion. Henry in particular is in jaw-droppingly excellent form, giving an achingly alive performance, (perhaps the best of his career, though the contenders are already numerous), as he uses his charisma to mask a deep pain and loneliness. However, though the screenplay (credited to Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders) has its moments, its tendencies towards cliché and surface level characterization — especially of the supporting roles — prevent it from living up to the work being done by its leads. But despite the flaws holding the film back from something truly masterful, the performances are close enough to transcendent to elevate the whole.
Sophomore writer-director Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul almost defies characterization. On the surface, it’s a story about family in its many forms: a young woman, raised in France by adoptive parents, returns to her birth country of South Korea to — ostensibly — meet her birth parents. But as the narrative unfolds over the course of many years, we see that despite all the drama one could mine from this premise alone, Chou wants to scratch at something deeper, at notions of identity and connection and selfishness, none of which are ever quite what they seem. As good as Chou’s script and direction are — jagged and controlled, painful and cathartic — the film’s greatest accomplishment may be the casting of debut actor Ji-min Park in the lead role. As Freddie, Park embodies one of the more complicated on-screen figures at the festival this year, a woman who lashes out at those around her while inherently craving a certain kind of love she’s not sure she actually wants out. As we see her push and pull with the various friends and family members who cross her path, we grow ever more empathetic to her internalized conflict — even as we maintain a healthy concern for anyone she might let in. It’s a magnetic and fearless performance, brimming with wounded energy in a film that ultimately finds a singular, heartwrenching groove.