It is the summer of 1987, timeless houses hidden beneath winding country roads, sweeping green trees descending over mailboxes, screen doors leading to overgrown backyards and friendly convenient store clerks— how could anyone be unhappy in this place? A Terrence Malick type of world where subtleties of nature act as windows into the minds of its characters. Like a piece of music scenes are delicately compiled, swaying back and forth, delving into lives once lived.
The music has stopped for Adele (Kate Winslet) whose young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) makes breakfast, does the chores and runs to the bank for his mother who only leaves the house once a month, which she happens to do on this particular Labor Day weekend. Adele is barely able to start the car or push a shopping cart— her hands shake as she attempts everyday tasks. As Henry leaves his mother in the store to look at comic books a man approaches him asking for a ride, suddenly mother and son realize they do not have much of a choice. Frank (Josh Brolin) leads them to the car, demanding Adele and Henry take him to their home.
Frank has no ill intent and tells Henry why he needs to lay low; he has escaped from prison after jumping out of a hospital window. Frank is the type of man a lonely housewife (or any housewife for that matter) could get used to, he attends to chores around the house—fixing door hinges, waxing floors, baking pies—hands wet with peaches and sugar. For Adele the music starts again, at first a little hymn and then a complete symphony.
Frank and Adele both recognize a loss in each other—life and its elaborate stages have left them crippled—Adele a prisoner in her own home and Frank surrounded by concrete for most of his adult life. Life for them was never supposed to be about simply “existing,” yet it has become their fate.
We are given glimpses into their previous lives, assumedly filled with joy and promise. A younger Frank (the hauntingly identical Tom Lipinski) walking through corn fields as though adrift, experiencing every stage of life—young love, sex, marriage—only to encounter deceit which leads to his crimes. Although Frank would “never intentionally” cause harm to anyone, it’s an inevitable aspect of life— intent rarely precedes heartbreak.
Although Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s (Juno, Up In The Air, Young Adult) first full-fledged drama, survives mainly on visual nuance, corny elements inevitably trickle in as Reitman chooses to tell a love story that is not altogether dreadful. This choice may put off some viewers who want a convincing tale of unconventional love. But Adele and Frank are characters of fiction composed by Joyce Maynard (To Die For), the type of people who exist in our minds and should never set foot in the real world (depressed shut-ins don’t look like Kate Winslet and escaped convicts most definitely look nothing like Brolin).
Love has a special place in the mind which authenticity should never meddle with, a place only novels, plays and films can enter and Labor Day grips this emotion whole heartedly. The thought that, despite a life of suffering, love will rush in and rescue us is ridiculous in the physical world but needs to exist in our minds to propel hope.
To say Winslet is good in this movie is like stating leaves grow on trees, she is simply good in everything, and no one does dowdy / sexy quite like her. As Reitman stated in an interview with AP’s Jake Coyle:
I don’t know another actress who knows how to deal with this kind of brokenness and vulnerability and make it so sensual. There’re a lot of actresses who can play broken people, but she does it without judging them. She does them and allows them to bloom at the same time.
As for Brolin, with masculine sensitivity oozing from his brow, he is perfect as a convict on the run with a heart of gold, okay maybe silver?
Another aspect of the film which will most likely be ignored by critics who fail to look past the romantic elements, is the complexity of transgression—how circumstance, not necessarily one’s intention, can cause us to become broken and not able to enjoy a milkshake during Sunday dinner with dad. Reitman alludes to these transgressions visually as we see Frank and Adele experience life on every level, in sickness and in health.
The strength of Labor Day relies on a collection of scenes—summer days and ice cream, to blood soaked thighs and overflowing bathtubs—life and its many stages plays favorites indeed. Small measurements of grace come in small sometimes tightly contained doses that are easy to ignore. Frank and Adele have chosen not to ignore what small doses they have.
Thus far Reitman’s transition to drama has not been well received, with critics deeming it over-sentimental. The ending will throw viewers off, but a film should never be confined to its ending alone (which is yes rather stupid and unbelievable) and if this story were delegated to the pages of fiction, sentimentality would be welcomed with open arms. In an age of tinder and grindr apps where we can pick a one-night stand at the drop of a condom, perhaps we could give romantic hope and serendipity a bit of a chance? As a child of six in 1987 I kept thinking about how substantial my life was pre-internet and texting, when conversations and meeting people for the first time was a true experience.
It’s not a about a man waltzing in to save a desperate woman, but what Brolin’s step-mother refers to as “PEOPLE, people who need PEOPLE.