Film Review: Labor Day

This low-key variation on the love-starved-woman-meets-handsome-stranger theme may be a hard sell, but Kate Winslet's touching performance is among the year's best.

Joyce Maynard wrote her 2009 best-seller Labor Day from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy, Henry, and it’s important to remember this while watching Jason Reitman’s film adaptation of the novel. For if you look at Labor Day as serious adult drama—forgetting that it’s a coming-of-age story, seen through the eyes of a boy naïf with raging hormones—well, you might find yourself thinking, “What kind of sentimental claptrap is this?”

On the other hand, if you’re a female (of any age) you might just say, “Oh, what the hell” and let yourself revel in this unabashed example of female titillation. For the truth is, despite all of its emotional excesses, Labor Day works—thanks to director Reitman, who’s fast becoming known as a “woman’s director,” and who elicits a deeply sincere and moving performance from Kate Winslet as Henry’s love-starved mother, Adele.

The story is set over the Labor Day weekend of 1987, when young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) talks his mother into going with him to the supermarket in town. It has been weeks since Adele left her house, which sits by a lonely country road in Massachusetts, as she’s been paralyzed with depression and grief over her unfulfilled life—what with a husband who abandoned her and several tragic pregnancies. Her one surviving kid is both loving and spunky, and acutely aware his mom needs to be shocked back to life. So he shows little fear when he’s approached by a tall, dark stranger, Frank (Josh Brolin), who’s wearing a blood-stained t-shirt and is obviously in desperate straits. For good reason: Frank is an escaped convict and needs a place to hide.

Although fearing for her son’s life—and her own—Adele agrees to take Frank to her home. A gregarious fellow, he quickly comes clean about his conviction and 18-year sentence for murdering his wife (an accident, he implies). He also convinces Adele to let him tie her up for a while—so she won’t be charged with harboring a criminal, in case the cops drop by. Stunned into silence, Adele simply watches as Frank proceeds to raid her fridge and finds ingredients to make a pot of chili—which he feeds to her by the spoonful, after blowing on the chili to cool it down.

By the next morning, after Frank had a good night’s sleep on the sofa, he eagerly makes himself useful—putting new grouting in a rock wall in the garden, changing the oil in the car, repairing a broken step and fixing the furnace, He also does the laundry and teaches Henry how to play baseball, and, after a neighbor drops off a pail of fresh peaches, he enlists both Adele and Henry to help bake a sumptuous peach pie. Taking their hands in his, he plunges them all into a bowl of cut-up peaches and guides them to stir and mix—all those tactile hands together, mixing and stirring all those sweet, fleshy, juicy peaches. This is the most erotic scene in the movie, and, naturally, Adele begins to fall in love with Frank. Who wouldn’t?

Their romance is not as idyllic as it may seem, of course, for throughout the long Labor Day weekend Frank (whom Brolin beautifully plays as both manly and empathetic) and Adele and Henry are constantly aware of the precariousness of their situation. The interloper is forced to hide and mother and son must lie when neighbors unexpectedly drop by or when Henry goes off to visit his dad (Clark Gregg) and his “other” family. The boy’s emotional turmoil is heightened by his sassy new girlfriend (Brighid Fleming), who gleefully tells him what’s what when it comes to sexual needs—and how children can be forgotten when the adults in their lives succumb to sexual passion. Sure enough, Adele and Frank’s heady romance makes them delusional enough to think they can escape to Canada (with Henry), and this is the point where the plot action speeds up and real tension sets in.

Until then, this claustrophobic love affair has been interrupted—and slowed down—by a series of flashbacks that eventually reveal how both Adele and Frank came to this point in their lives. Any dramatic tension has been sustained by an intrusive and heavy-handed musical score which not so sneakily prepares us for the worst. So it’s a relief when the plot finally gets going, and a welcome surprise when the adult Henry—played by Tobey Maguire, who provides the film’s voiceover narration—suddenly appears onscreen and becomes the architect of Labor Day’s sweet and not overly soppy happy ending. Altogether nicely done—or so say the romantics among us.