Subtract the kidnapping, and “Labor Day” depicts the most romantic long weekend a divorced hausfrau could hope for, as a swarthy stranger waltzes into her life, passing the time by fixing her car, making pie and teaching her awkward son to play baseball. Factor in the notion that the outsider is an escaped killer, however, and this all-summer-in-a-day story starts to feel as baked as the convict’s peach pies. Underserved female auds will gladly indulge such well-intentioned shenanigans when Paramount opens the film on Dec. 25, since it all builds to a series of emotional payoffs that should elevate this moving weeper into a holiday sleeper.
Debuting over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, Jason Reitman’s passionate fifth feature left a significant fraction of its audience in tears as they connected with Kate Winslet’s Adele, a depressed single mother whose pain runs deeper than the film initially lets on. As in Joyce Maynard’s novel, events are told from the perspective of Adele’s 14-year-old son Henry, or “Hank,” played by Gattlin Griffith for most of the picture, which is set on the last weekend of summer 1985, but narrated in the present by Tobey Maguire.
As the voiceover makes clear, Hank was too young to understand his mother’s needs back then, which poses a bit of a problem for Reitman’s approach, since he ultimately wants to be inside Winslet’s head. Indeed, the director, who possesses a good eye for composition and generally sharp instincts with actors, seems to be operating from a place of empathy rather than life experience, drawing attention to the contrivances that Maynard got away with in her novel.
More than once we hear the word “longing” to describe Adele’s state of mind, and there’s a sense that she’s willed prison escapee Frank (Josh Brolin) into existence. Though he was serving 20 years for murder, Frank insists there’s more to the story. Time will tell, though the film dutifully withholds the tragedies these two characters share in common until the end, which makes for a third act even Nicholas Sparks would envy (happily, the result most resembles “The Notebook’s” guiltless-pleasure adaptation, though its blindsided-by-love plot owes more to “The Lucky One”).
In the early going, Reitman struggles to balance the competing feelings the scenario evokes. He can count on Winslet, who has long since mastered the role of affection-starved wife in “Little Children” and “Mildred Pierce,” to communicate Adele’s fragility in a matter of a few short scenes, but it’s much harder to accept that a wanted man can be as sensitive as Frank. The film tries to manufacture suspense when Frank first forces his way into their lives, though it can’t afford to make him too scary, lest audiences find him difficult to like. After all, everything hinges on Adele’s willingness to suppress her instincts and shelter this wanted criminal — and for auds to accept her actions.
Almost immediately, Frank proves himself a better father figure to Hank than Adele’s ex (Clark Gregg) ever was, teaching the boy how to change a tire and sharing other father-son advice that Hank needs at his vulnerable age. The part asks a lot of Griffith, who manages to balance the character’s conflicting allegiances — protective of his mother, longing for male approval — without lapsing into precious child-actor mode. In the sweep of Hank’s life, this is the weekend he goes from being a boy to becoming a man, and the movie plants all sorts of foreboding visions to prepare audiences for a worst-case outcome, including the warnings of a brooding teenage friend (Brighid Fleming) who felt pushed aside when her own parents found new adult partners.
Reitman rightly intuits that erotic tension will take the story farther than a passionate embrace possibly could, and so he includes charged moments — a steady hand on Adele’s waist, attention paid to a childhood scar, and the hyper-sensual act of laying a pie-crust in place. In one especially nice touch, Hank is playing a videogame in the next room when he catches the reflection of his mother nuzzling Frank in the screen.
“Labor Day” brims with such carefully observed details, all of them a little too elegant to feel entirely genuine, and yet impossible to fault — apart from the underlying premise, of course, which is plenty troubling: that a misunderstood killer is just the father/lover this incomplete family needs to feel whole again. Still, one has to respect Reitman for tackling a project with such a major inherent hurdle, and there’s no question that this film finds him delving past the ironic veneer of “Juno” and “Young Adult” into more sentimental (evoking Clint Eastwood’s “The Bridges of Madison County” and “A Perfect World,” in particular).
The mid-’80s period aspects — beautifully rendered by d.p. Eric Steelberg in sun-dappled shots that seem to be elegantly tracking in, out, left and right at all times — are so ripe with nostalgia, “Labor Day” also calls to mind J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” only the characters aren’t junior filmmakers but budding pie-bakers, and rather than aliens, they have a hostage crisis to contend with. To the extent that Adele’s hunger for affection resonates with audiences, what emerges is a powerful — if implausible — romance.