Even though the plot of “Labor Day” sounds like something plucked right out of Lifetime’s primetime television lineup, I was still optimistic considering the talent involved in the project. I greatly respect Jason Reitman as a screenwriter and a director. It also features Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin – two very capable performers who have done some great work during their careers. But I approached the film with a level of skepticism. Could Reitman deliver an intelligent romantic drama or would it be formulaic mush befitting a Harlequin novel?
First the story. The film takes place in the fictional town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire during a hot Labor Day weekend in 1987. 13-year old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is a sweet and responsible boy who takes care of his severely depressed single mother Adele (Winslet). A number of terrible misfortunes have left her an emotional wreck so much so that their once-a-month trips to the supermarket triggers her anxiety. During one of those trips they encounter an escaped and injured felon named Frank (Brolin) who “convinces” them to drive him to their home. Once there he hopes to lay low until his wounds heal and he can skip town.
As every trailer and television commercial has already shared, Frank isn’t a terrible guy. We get some threatening vibes from him, but as escaped convicts doing time for murder usually go, he is pretty docile. He quickly connects with Adele and Henry, filling all sorts of fatherly and husband-like voids in their lives. He begins fixing things around the house, he teaches Henry how to throw a baseball, and a romance is sparked with Adele. The three create a beautiful fantasy-like world within the homeplace, but right outside is the reality of Frank’s past and his status as a wanted man.
In lesser hands this could have ended up a mushy, clichéd mess. Fortunately Reitman handles the material in a way that keeps that from happening. But not completely. There are a few incredibly sappy bits that hit us head-on. For example there is one scene where Frank reveals his culinary aptitude. In it we get a sequence ripped straight from the signature scene in “Ghost” except here the clay is replaced by peaches. We also get some schmaltzy lines of dialogue such as Frank saying in just the right romantic tone “I’ve come to save you Adele”.
There are also a couple of narrative choices that didn’t really work for me. There is an odd little diversion that gets into Henry’s pubescent struggles. Through it we meet an eccentric young girl who serves as his introduction to puberty. Both she and the entire story angle is underdeveloped and tacked on. We also get the old tried-and-true method of telling Frank’s backstory through a series of random flashbacks. They get the job done but it is a pretty conventional approach.
But despite all of these jabs I’ve thrown its way, “Labor Day” still manages to work. Other than the few hiccups, Reitman creates a small-scale intimacy that I connected with. Most importantly he gives us three main characters that we genuinely care about. This is important because when the film stumbles I still wanted to stay with these characters. I also love how Reitman uses the camera. He frames some beautiful shots and I love his visual perspective. And of course there are the two lead performances. Winslet has always been great at playing women in some form of anguish. Here she does it again with striking authenticity. Brolin’s rugged looks and charming sincerity are perfect for the role and helps their chemistry.
So clearly “Labor Day” has some issues but it also has some undeniable strengths. It can be a little too sappy and the melodrama can be extremely heavy. But it also has a sweet story with a lot of heart at its core. It all comes down to your ability to just go with it and get lost in the story. If you’re able to do that there is enough here to like. If you can’t then more than likely the film’s flaws will be all too glaring.