Writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) has taken on a variety of topics in his short but lauded career, but all of his films have generally had humor as a common element. However, there’s little levity to be found in his latest, Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard.
The film centers on the adolescent Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet). Traumatized by her past, Adele rarely ventures outside the house, only going out every month or so to stock up on supplies. It’s on one of these trips just before Labor Day that she and Henry run into Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped prisoner who all but forces them to hide him from the authorities.
Despite its faults, Labor Day maintains a certain kind of magnetism throughout.
Right from the start, though, the situation feels different from the usual kind of kidnapping depicted on screen. Frank has a charismatic demeanor that is never all that threatening, mostly due to a lack of weapons. Although Adele and Henry’s reactions can initially be chalked up to shock, they quickly turn downright hospitable.
Reitman fills in the blanks on the pasts of both Adele and Frank via flashbacks, and it’s here that he makes a small but crucial error. Adele and Frank have no prior history, but the way Reitman structures the flashbacks — with no dialogue and quick edits — there are times that he seems to intimate that their current meeting is not by chance.
That insinuation changes the whole tenor of the film. If they had met in the past, Adele taking to Frank so quickly makes much more sense. Their quick infatuation, given her fragile psyche, isn’t completely far-fetched without that added element, but it certainly holds less water.
The film is also ostensibly a coming-of-age tale for Henry, whose adult self (voiced by Tobey Maguire) narrates the film. But the star power of Winslet and Brolin, their characters’ budding romance, and the threat of Frank being caught at any moment overshadows any insights the film may have on a young boy needing a more involved father figure.
Despite its faults, the film maintains a certain kind of magnetism throughout. Winslet, Brolin and Griffith all sell the unlikely scenario with their honest acting. The nebulous pasts of both Adele and Frank are easier to swallow when they’re in the hands of such skilled performers.
Labor Day is not Reitman’s most successful outing, but it’s not the embarrassing one that others have made it out to be. It’s a solidly told drama that could’ve been elevated even higher had Reitman made some better decisions.