Sure, it may be a bit sappier and less of a social statement than his other films, i.e. Up In The Air, Thank You for Smoking, and Juno, but writer/director Jason Reitman’s latest, Labor Day, still largely hits a palpable emotional core within its audience thanks to its understated writing and performances.
The story is told from the perspective of Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a young teen who lives with his depressed, shut-in mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). Henry’s father (Clark Gregg) is nice enough and interested in helping Henry through his formative years, but Henry’s preoccupation with caring for his mother, coupled with the isolation Henry feels when he spends time with his dad’s new family, have the young man searching for more. He wants his mother to feel love again and he needs a true father figure to guide him to manhood.
Enter Frank (Josh Brolin), a mysterious man who approaches Henry during one of his monthly trips to the grocery store with his mom for supplies. Because Adele is cripplingly anti-social, these errands are considered dangerous affairs, and this one in particular turns out particularly so. Frank asks Henry and his mom for a ride; when they mildly resist, he insists, implying that they do not have a choice. They return to Adele’s home, where Henry and his mother discover that Frank is an escaped convict, on the run from the law for murder.
Frank is a perfect paradox; a brawny, quiet man who is evidently capable of great violence and yet is sensitive and attentive to the unspoken feelings of his prisoners. Henry immediately takes to Frank, seeing in him a warped role model and potential mate for Adele. Adele is conflicted, as she seems inexplicably drawn to Frank, despite her own good sense and anxious afflictions. As day turns to night and the search becomes more intense, Henry and Adele begin to oddly enjoy Frank’s company and invite him to stay until he can make a safer escape. Despite the seemingly-doomed nature of their relationships, the three become a family, frozen in the momentary bliss they’ve all been yearning for.
The film’s heavy fare, with circumstances that would seem improbable if it weren’t for the hidden motivations of the characters, is rooted brilliantly in the writing and the performances. In the first 20 minutes of the film, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the novel wastes no time in setting up the hows and whys of each character without giving too much away or hitting his audience over the head with it. It keeps things interesting and exhilarating when it could easily have fallen into the realm of unrealistic and trite.
The performances are great across the board, with Josh Brolin’s inherent likability anchoring the believability of the proceedings. Kate Winslet never lets her performance rise to melodramatic, and Gattlin Griffith shines as Henry, arguably the most relatable of all the characters. A great musical score bridges any remaining gap between the audience and the cast’s feelings to make this another good entry for Reitman, in line with his other films.
The sum of its parts results in a very good (if sappy and depressing) story that is more about the emotions of love and loss than it is about the overarching plot. If you don’t catch it in the theaters for date night, it’s a solid rental for sure.