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Labor Day

When he was making the rounds at the end of 2011 with his last film Young Adult, writer/director Jason Reitman had mentioned that his next project would find him in new territory, admitting that it would be different from anything he's done before. All he had mentioned during a Q&A was that it would be a complex drama called Labor Day which would star Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin and that he had tried to get it going before Young Adult.

After working the festival circuit last fall and managing a late December release date for award consideration, finally makes it to theaters, alas, in the month of January. It is indeed something new for the director, tackling uneasy melodrama that thankfully rises above Lifetime Movie of the Week material.

Tentative thirteen year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffin) lives with his troubled mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in small town New Hampshire. We gather early on that there is something that is emotionally crippling Adele and that Henry's father (Clark Gregg) couldn't take it anymore and started a new life for himself down the street with his secretary. Talk about awkward.

Although leaving the house can be a challenge for Adele, she is in no way neglectful toward her caring son, yet she can often be found mentally checking out, with a catatonic daydream stare.

The two definitely share a connection, though. Adele can openly talk about sex with Henry and he will go out of his way to serve her breakfast or take her out to a movie. Despite his best efforts, Henry knows his mother has needs that he cannot meet. That's about to change.

While he's in town for supplies, an imposing stranger asks Henry for help. Limping and bleeding near his waist, the polite man firmly demands that Henry and Adele take him to their home. They soon learn that his name is Frank (Josh Brolin) and he is a convict that escaped a prison hospital right before he was about to get an appendectomy. The local cops and media are on searching for Frank and he needs a place to lay low.

While Frank doesn't seem like the type of guy you want to mess with, what transpires in the large, run-down home isn't your typical hostage/captor scenario. There are hesitancies all around at first, but Frank slowly takes on the role of father figure and husband. He becomes a handyman around the house and offers encouragement to Henry and a human touch for Adele. He even teaches them how to make a peach pie from scratch. Never mind how he knows such things.

This all takes place during Labor Day weekend and despite imposing (Brooke Smith) and cautious (J.K. Simmons) neighbors dropping by, the three are able to keep a low profile as they develop this makeshift family.

As Adele and Frank build an emotional connection, Henry begins to feel apprehensive about the new change to his family dynamic. Fueled by unsolicited input from Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), a newly relocated teen, Henry begins to wonder if there will be any room for him in his mother's life now that things are getting serious between she and Frank.

Viewers should get the idea that things work out for Henry. After all, he can be heard narrating the film (that's Tobey Maguire, who also appears later as an older Henry) from the start. Later on, it becomes clear why Henry is recalling this memorable, life-changing weekend in 1987 and by then, tragic past events in the lives of Adele and Frank explain how these two could connect so quickly.

At first, I was frustrated with Winslet's Adele. I can see how she had to go along with his potentially dangerous convict, but how she could begin to fall for him perplexed and frustrated me. But the more we learn of Adele, the more we understand the desperate longing that needs to reawakened out of the mental and emotional prison she has built for herself.

On that note, one could conclude that both she and Frank have had their own incarceration. The snippets of Frank's backstory (actor Tom Lipinski plays Young Frank, uncannily resembling Brolin) give viewers a better understanding of who he is and what he was doing time for. It also provides evidence as to why he could be trusted by Adele and Henry as well.

It took seeing these painful backstories for me to connect to Adele and Frank and appreciate that they've strayed away from the stereotypical portrayals hinted at earlier in the film. It's a good narrative move, since Reitman, who is adapting a 2009 Joyce Maynard novel, could've easily veered toward the soapy Harlequin drama that the material feels like it would be.

There is some of that manipulation, but it's the good kind – the absorbing kind that feels well-earned, not to mention it's passionately made with Reitman providing meticulous detail to environments (thanks to cinematographer Eric Steelberg) and tension-building music (composed by frequent Reitman collaborator, Rolfe Kent).

So, while it does feel like Reitman is offering the Lifetime Channel crowd a reason to check this film out, it also feels like he's navigating into specific noir conventions (William Wyler's 1955 Desperate Hours comes to mind), but ultimately, it comes down to the director focusing on characterization that keeps Labor Day away from schmaltz.

Labor Day is best during the sweaty in-the-moment scenes that truly convey anxiety and nervousness. Two particular scenes come to mind, both reminding us why Winslet is such a fine actress. A scene where Adele is at the town bank with Henry withdrawing all her money, unexpectedly had me on the edge of my seat. Also, a nerve-racking scene with a friendly police officer (James Van Der Beek) who offers Henry a ride home and visits with Adele in the driveway, while a cautious Frank can be seen watching from within the house, could've heightened to a violent altercation.

Fortunately, Reitman is aiming for heightened tension on the screen, providing rapid heart rates for viewers instead of facial tissues for forced tear-jerking scenes (of which there are none). Reitman has established himself as one of my favorite American directors, with each film of his films focusing on flawed-yet-compelling characters.

Labor Day isn't his best film (I lean toward Up in the Air for that title), but I appreciate that he went for it and brought several subgenres – coming-of-age, fugitive-meets-a-fractured-family and strong/sensitive guy saves damaged woman – together to make a satisfying character study.

Some may find Labor Day to be just another Book of the Month Club selection making it to the big-screen. Some may find what transpires incredulous. I get that. That's what I thought going in and some of those thoughts were entertaind as I watched this film. But the fine performances from Winslet and Brolin won me over, with their evocation of grief and guilt, successfully navigating away from Nicholas Sparks clichés.


(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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