Labor Day takes place in the year 1987, where depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) struggles to function, despite her 13-year old son Henry’s (Gattlin Griffith) best efforts to give her the support she needs. While clothes-shopping for Henry, the pair encounter a suspicious – and bleeding – man named Frank (Josh Brolin), who quietly but firmly makes them give him a ride to their house.
The truth about Frank – that he’s a convict who fled a hospital shortly after having surgery – soon comes out, but the gentle and polite fugitive persuades his captives to let him stay with them until he can flee on a local train. One thing leads to another, and Frank begins providing Adele with the tender care of a loving partner, while also giving Henry the kind of paternal guidance he’s been neglected. But with the police slowly yet surely closing in, how long can this fantasy be sustained?
Based on the novel penned by Joyce Maynard (whose book To Die For is the basis for the Nicole Kidman film) and written/directed for the big screen by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), Labor Day is a sincere and earnest attempt to get at the deeper meaning of a rather soapy premise; unfortunately, the movie is only partially successful in its quest.
Reitman’s script frames the central narrative – the romance between Frank and Adele – with flashbacks that reveal Frank’s backstory; there’s also a coming of age plot thread for Henry woven into the proceedings, and it’s from the latter’s perspective that much of the story unfolds. As a result, Labor Day does manage to scratch the surface of an adult love story (ie. what attracts damaged people to one another), while also partly capturing the confusing and uncomfortable side of adolescence. Unfortunately, all these individual parts never quite fully gel to form a cohesive whole – and, far worse, when it comes to payoffs, the film tends to favor melodrama over poignancy.
Visually, Labor Day is more solid, as Reitman and his longtime director of photography Eric Steelberg smartly rely upon intimate camera angles during the emotionally-terse sequences, in combination with picturesque imagery that captures the fleeting nature of Adele and Frank’s love affair (as symbolized by the waning summer sun). Meanwhile, there’s a feeling of either unease and/or sweet melancholy sustained throughout much of the film, thanks to Rolfe Kent’s ominous score; though as the story progresses further and further along, the soundtrack starts to feel increasingly over the top and perhaps unnecessary. Indeed, as a whole, Labor Day might’ve benefitted from a more restrained storytelling approach, which could’ve helped to better ground the innately hokey setup.
With regards to the cast, their performances are compelling yet restricted by their characters being painted in broad strokes. Kate Winslet, as the troubled Adele, creates a sympathetic and fairly realistic portrait of someone whose past experiences have left them broken, even when having to act out contrived or heavy-handed scenarios. (As an example, Adele often forgets to move her car out of “Neutral” while driving somewhere – get it?) Josh Brolin is likewise convincing enough as a sensitive hunk, though it also feels like he gets shortchanged by having to play someone whose psychology isn’t explored quite deep enough to make them believable as a real person. (On a relate note: Tom Lipinski, as the young Frank in flashbacks, does look remarkably like he could be a young Brolin.)
Gattlin Griffth (Changeling) as young Henry offers a satisfactory performance, though he serves foremost as the audience’s window into the Adele/Frank romance and the scenes where Henry spends time with his biological father (Clark Gregg, who’s solid as ever) and the latter’s new family sometimes feel like an afterthought. The character Mandy (Maika Monroe), a comically-jaded girl who Henry develops a crush on, is likewise engaging, but her interactions with Griffith feel a bit out of place – as though the movie is suddenly a remake of Juno, set in the 1980s. Similarly, the voiceover narration by Tobey Maguire (as the grown-up Henry) generally doesn’t enhance or improve the storytelling.
Other recognizable faces show up briefly in the film – J.K. Simmons (Juno), Brooke Smith (Ray Donovan) and Dawson’s Creek alum James Van Der Beek among them – but they’re mostly included to simply complicate the situation and/or keep the story moving forward. The cast manages to bring some needed emotional authenticity to events which transpire onscreen, as too often Labor Day plays out as a collection of inherently mawkish scenarios that are treated in a completely unironic fashion – and thus, all the more likely to elicit unintentional laughs for it (see: the soon to be infamous pie-making scene).
Still, in the end, Labor Day is neither complete failure nor a real triumph, but something in-between, thanks to Reitman and his cast’s commitment to the (at the least, questionable) material. For some moviegoers, this will be a satisfying viewing experience and play out like the best Nicholas Sparks romance novel adaptation they’ve ever seen; for those unable to look past the implausibility of the basic premise, it’ll probably seem like the proper title for the film would’ve been How I Met Your Fugitive Surrogate Father.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Labor Day:
Labor Day is now playing in theaters. It is 111 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality.