Based on Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel, Labor Day marks a departure for director Jason Reitman, best known for indie-coms with a side order of snark, from Thank You For Smoking to Young Adult. A kidnap tale with minimal violence that evolves into a low-temperature romance, this is an odd beast, but one that comes from the heart.
Narrated by the adult Henry Wheeler (an unseen Tobey Maguire), the story flashes back to 1985 when he was a teenager living with his fragile, post-divorce mother Adele (Kate Winslet). Life for young Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith) takes a turn when he’s approached by the injured Frank (Josh Brolin) at their local supermarket.
Forcefully requesting shelter, Frank’s soon back at Adele’s house – where news broadcasts make it clear he’s a wanted man, having escaped prison while serving 20 years for murder. But Adele doesn’t raise the alarm; rather, intrigued by the presence of this gruff but sensitive man, she lets him recuperate…
Describing Labor Day makes it sound, well, laboured. The downtrodden divorcee who falls for the ex-con with the heart of gold sounds like the makings of a bad airport novel. Take the sensuous scene where Frank teaches Adele how to make a peach pie. Cheesy? Yes, but not to the point you’ll be sticking fingers down your throat.
If subtlety is key here, both Winslet and Brolin lead the way, favouring gentle touches rather than grandstand gestures. True, the finale may well be unrealistic, but the director’s belief in his characters has earned him a shot at it. One for the shameless romantic, then.
Led by first-rate work from Winslet and Brolin, Labor Day is a skilful, old-fashioned drama from a maturing director. Cynics, however, need not apply.