With the media promoting Labor Day as a sweeping love story akin to a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, Jason Reitman’s latest feature may have certain viewers getting into something they hardly bargained for. Yet, when given the chance, Labor Day, starring Josh Brolin and Academy Award-winner Kate Winslet, provides a beautiful and at times heart-wrenching look into the complications of a love unasked for.
The film-based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard-follows the five-day journey of Adele Wheeler (Winslet), a depressed single mother, and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) during the Labor Day weekend of 1987. Adele, who struggles to leave her house for menial tasks and errands, relies greatly on Henry. When Adele and Henry make their monthly trip to the supply store, they meet Frank Chambers (Brolin), an escaped convict who forcefully insists that the Wheelers take him back to their house, where he plans to hide until morning. As he waits for the trains to run during this holiday weekend, Chambers slowly begins making himself a part of Adele and Henry’s world. Despite the ever-present television news reports that warn of Chambers’ escape and of his dangerous nature, the three of them bond over cleaning, handiwork, and the baking of a peach pie-a scene that is perhaps one of the most memorable in the film.
In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns more about Adele and Chambers, and about the events that have led them to the places they are in their lives today. As Adele and Chambers slowly fall in love, they begin to imagine a life beyond hiding out from neighbors and cop cars.
Those expecting Labor Day to be similar to Reitman’s prior work-most notably, Up in the Air, Juno, and Thank You for Smoking-might be surprised. Aside from a few moments, the film generally lacks the snappy sarcasm often found in Reitman’s other features. Reitman’s foray into this type of drama is not without its faults-at certain times the film borders on melodrama, if only for its slightly predictable plot. The strong leads seem to bolster the directing, though, as Winslet and Brolin each shine in their roles. They easily hold the audience’s focus on the emotional core rather than on what’s coming out of their mouths.
Winslet is no stranger to playing characters like Adele-she takes an introverted character and makes her come alive through moments of both pain and love. The sadness in her face is undeniable and forms a direct connection with the audience. It is Winslet’s performance that guides the film, carrying the audience along on Adele’s emotional journey.
Brolin’s presence in the film is also strong. He is commanding enough to convince the audience of his convict status, yet gentle enough to fall for. Although Adele’s son Henry may seem like he holds a limited part-the majority of his scenes involve watching his mother and Frank fall in love-Griffith carries the role well and brings to the table exactly what was needed.
One of the strongest parts of the film lies in the flashbacks of Adele’s and Chambers’ respective lives before their falling in love. Specifically, these flashbacks follow Adele as she struggles with moments in her previous marriage and give reason to Chambers’ imprisonment. These scenes are carefully constructed and speak well to the work of writer/director Reitman, as well as editor Dana E. Glauberman, who has frequently worked with Reitman. The flashbacks merge seamlessly with the present-day storyline and provide insight as well as emotion.
Although the film blindly follows some of the conventions of a stereotypical romance, those flocking to this movie with the expectation that it will warm their souls and be a perfect date night film will likely struggle to see the beauty behind Labor Day. It is unfortunate that media promotion has spliced the majority of the romantic scenes into one trailer and put it on display, as it will undoubtedly change the overall expectation of the movie for many. The emotion behind Labor Day is not necessarily going to appeal to mass consumers, but will affect those who can appreciate poignant acting and a film that is willing to challenge the viewer’s emotional expectations. At base, Labor Day is a film that forces viewers to consider a love of rare form.