by Philip Price
I really wanted to like “Labor Day,” despite the negative press it has received since premiering last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. I wanted to believe that there was no way a film adapted and directed by Jason Reitman that starred Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, both well-respected and credible actors, would turn out to be little more than a melodramatic romance that could have been just as well adapted from the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel than that of the Joyce Maynard source material. Granted, I don't know much about the source material or Maynard's writing, but if the film turns out to be anything it is a well-acted, beautifully shot slice of life drama that takes the late summer weekend that traditionally precedes the beginning of the school year and introduces a world of conflict into the otherwise simple life of a mother and child who are simply trying to get by. There is naturally more to the relationship between the mother and son as it becomes clear quite quickly that Henry (Gattlin Griffith) has been forced to grow up quicker than he anticipated and take care of his mother, Adele (Winslet), after his father (Clark Gregg) left them. Adele suffers from depression, but we understand this isn't due simply to the loss of her ex-husband to his secretary, but that this pain runs deeper and that the root cause of such pain has blurred the outlook she has on life and the qualities required to have what many would call a "normal" existence. There is a fair amount of ideas going on here; coming of age, forbidden love, regret and perspective, the depression aspect and, of course, the strong influence food plays in the developing relationships between characters. There is a charm to the film, but there is also a carelessness to the quality of the storytelling. It is almost impossible for Winslet or Brolin to give a bad performance and they bring their full efforts to two equally damaged people that need the strength of one another to feel complete, but the way in which this relationship and the circumstances surrounding their courtship develop do little to re-enforce the credibility these two actors bring to such a story. To be fair, this isn't a Nicholas Sparks adaptation and deserves to be seen as more than those manufactured stories now come off as because there is a strong air of authenticity to “Labor Day,” yet it simultaneously feels lacking in critical areas.
As the film begins we get the impression, as it is told from Henry's perspective, that this will ultimately be a tale not of how Adele was changed through the course of this encounter with Brolin's escaped convict Frank, but of how it left an impression on and influenced the man Henry would become. That it would speak to the idea that it's not a matter of how much time you have to spend with someone, but your actions in that time that will matter most. Though Frank, Adele and Henry only share this short moment in time over Labor Day weekend with one another, they are each forever changed in some way that will never allow their lives to return to the way they were before they knew one another. It is a grand notion with the aforementioned themes all concentrated into this one story that spans all of a few days. In that regard you could say it was trying to do too much, to say too many things on a variety of different stages of life, but the film never feels overly crowded or dysfunctional it just doesn't seem cohesive. We meet Henry as a young teenage boy ready to enter his seventh grade year and someone who is naturally beginning to be curious about the opposite sex. He tries not to concern his mother with his own questions or issues and is earnest in his attempts to fill the void left by his father, but he knows there is only so much he can do to fulfill the requirements of such desired companionship and though I doubt his initial thought upon being approached by Frank, who is clearly wounded and asking for help, is that he should hook him up with his mom it doesn't hurt that Frank continues to pay him compliments and admires his respectable attitude that no one else in his world seems to mention. This set-up of what Henry needs from a senior figure in his life and what he is depraved of bodes well for the opportunity that presents itself when Frank joins he and Adele at their house and the fact he is an escaped convict and that Adele and Henry will be sheltering him only adds to the tension of the story, but also allows questions to linger. The story veers back and forth between exploring all the themes and motivations it has set-up early on and the strict tension of the love story between a woman who needs to feel that emotion again and a man who has the odds stacked against him to ever lead a normal life. Both characters share this quality of not feeling normal but the development of the relationship feels short-handed because despite there being so much going on with each of these people we don't see that deeper connection come to fruition.
It is almost as if the film would have been more engaging had it focused on one of the adults more than the other and chronicled their psychological progress from being on one end of the spectrum to being able to find happiness with this other, unsuspecting human being that likely never thought they'd find joy again either. It is understandable why these two would feel attracted to one another and why something would develop between them, it is inevitable really, but the way in which this story is conveyed and the defining actions of these characters leave little room for such insight to breathe. The film, about halfway through, seems to forget it is being told from Henry's perspective as it too becomes more wrapped up in the relationship between Adele and Frank but tries to stay true to its narrator by never showing us the personal moments between the two, the conversations they have when Henry isn't around. Tobey Maguire narrates as the grown-up Henry and this works fine as we only see him physically near the end of the film and there are pop-ups from other recognizable faces like Reitman mainstay J.K. Simmons as well as James Van Der Beek in a small, but impressive little segment that will set you on edge. This is Brolin and Winslet's show though despite young Griffith doing his best to keep the small nuances and unique perspective from which Henry sees the situation unfolding as the most relevant. It is not out of character for Winslet to play this kind of distraught and emotionally damaged woman and she does that to grand effect here with shaking hands, fears of going out into the world and anti-social tendencies all intact, but it is Brolin who ends up shining the most because he convinces us that despite the large man-hunt taking place for his character and despite the lack of proof that he didn't actually do what he is accused of, we take Frank as an honorable and intelligent man who ultimately came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way in which his character arc unfolds from a menacing captor to a sympathetic and honorable man is justified solely by the presence Brolin brings with him. His overpowering jawline, his thick hands that slide over Adele's and the food they create and even the brooding but peaceful tone in which he speaks make for a well-rounded performance in a lopsided story.
While there was little to be understood about why a director like Reitman would want to veer from his typical style into the world of something like this sentimental love story at first it becomes clear over the course of the film why it would be interesting to see what more directors who are now attached to a stigma or certain genre would do if thrown out of their comfort zone. There is clear evidence not only in the casting, but in the pacing and well-executed high points of the film that display the knowing hand of not only a seasoned director, but someone who has their own style and vision. This was not a film put together in hopes of making women cry and serving as simple date night fodder, but an honest effort from a filmmaker who no doubt read and fell in love with the story the book told and wanted to see it brought to life on the big screen. While I don't know how or if the events of Maynard's novel are mirrored here exactly or if the storytelling technique or point of view is the same I assume it is likely safe to say that where the film runs into problems is having to condense the longer passages of character and relationship development down into single images or short scenes that leave more to be desired from an audience that so badly wants to be invested. I was really rooting for this film, I really wanted to like it and in all honesty I probably admire the film more than I actually enjoyed it. It is a solid piece of work and you could do much worse than this if you're looking for something to recommend on a rainy day or a love story to become wrapped up in, but the fact Reitman had the ambition and confidence to invest in and make this is more impressive than the film itself. I enjoyed certain parts of the film, the performances mostly, and there were times where I truly was on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails while only hoping the film didn't drown itself in the audiences’ standard expectations. It doesn't, and while the story itself is a clear weak spot early on the motivations and justifications of these calculated behaviors come full circle in a way that was more satisfying and insightful than I expected which, in many ways, elevated the first act of the film for me. Yes, it can be schmaltzy and yes, the peach cobbler scene is a little much, but damn does the food look good and damn if you're not left with something to think about and consider as you leave the theater.