Whenever someone tells me that a trailer or commercial for a film doesn't make it clear to them what the film is about, I take that as a great sign. Yes, folks, sometimes a film is complicated enough that it doesn't easily reduce itself to a two-minute trailer. That doesn't mean the film is good, necessarily, but it's a healthy sign that there are still works out there that are trying to be something more than just cut-and-dry stories, where you can anticipate every turn and remain numb to every feeling. Based on Joyce (TO DIE FOR) Maynard's emotionally complex novel, LABOR DAY is a film with many layers and jumbled motivations, all of which director and screenwriter Jason Reitman (UP IN THE AIR, JUNO) has sifted through and made into something that presents a handful of broken character's all seeking to put themselves back together with each other's help.
Even how the film begins is unclear. Living in New Hampshire circa 1987, single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) is shopping for school clothes and supplies for 13-year-old son Henry (Dylan Minnette), when they are approached by Frank (Josh Brolin), who asks for their help while showing signs that he is injured to some degree. Without much coaxing and only a small amount of intimidation Frank convinces the two to take him to their car and drive him to their home. Is this a kidnapping? Or does Adele take pity on a fellow wounded soul in need of a change of luck? Each viewer will have a slightly different opinion on that, and that's a rare and great thing to experience in any movie.
It turns out Frank is an escaped convict, perhaps the most gentlemanly con in the history of the penal system, and after just a few hours in Adele's home, he makes himself useful by doing some handyman work around the house and even cooks up a few homemade dishes for this makeshift family. There's a pie-baking sequence that feels particularly naughty. Adele is a divorced woman, and it becomes clear that the break-up was devastating to her. The ex-husband (Clark Gregg) lives nearby, and his attempts to maintain a relationship with Henry seem strained and forced at best. Watching his mother find it difficult to even leave the house any longer doesn't sit well with the boy, and it's clear he blames his dad, now living with a new wife and young children.
For a great deal of LABOR DAY, the threat of Frank getting caught isn't really a major concern. A visit from an intrusive neighbor lady who needs Adele's babysitting help is about as tense as the film gets in its middle act. Instead the film transforms from this story of a convict in jail for a crime of passion into a slow-burn love story. But underneath the more sensual tale is something almost more moving. Labor Day is narrated by a now-adult Henry (voiced by Tobey Maguire, who is seen briefly at the end of the film), and it becomes gradually clear that this is a story about a growing boy finding a father figure in his life for the first time (Henry's dad is essentially useless in this department, opting instead to try to be his son's buddy rather than a role model). Henry even gets up the confidence to drum up his own tentative love interest in Brighid Flemming's Eleanor.
The film also features a handful of flashbacks into Frank's past, to a simpler time in his life when he was madly in love and had a child of his own. While these scenes do their intended job of filling in the blanks as to why Frank ended up in jail, they almost don't matter because we enjoy his company so much that if he'd told Adele he got drunk and killed a man accidentally in a bar fight, we'd probably be okay with that. But that's not what happened to Frank, and there is an inevitable tragedy to his story that does make us take pity on him, without exactly forgiving him.
There are certainly some who will never get past Adele's decision to accept this man into her life and not do everything in her power to get her son to safety. But we certainly never get a sense that Frank would ever harm these two no matter what. Even a sequence where he half-heartedly ties Adele to a chair to make it look like she's being held against her will when he's afraid the law has found him feels safe.
My biggest concerns with the film have to do with the end. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that, as you might expect, Frank does finally get discovered by the police and somehow manages to convince them that Adele was an unwilling participant in his escape plan. When you see the film, you'll understand how that scenario doesn't exactly hold water, but it's a minor point that does nothing to take away from the delicate structure and beautiful performances by Winslet and Brolin, who are masters of understatement in these roles. When one thinks of Brolin's body of work, some of his larger-than-life roles might come to mind, but he's at his best, I believe, when he's largely quiet and brooding. In LABOR DAY, he drifts between stoic strength and downright smoldering.
Winslet on the other hand is rarely seen in the film without a thin layer of sweat on her forehead, cheeks and shoulders. It's the end of a hot summer when the story takes place, and there's a healthy flush in Adele's face that no man can resist. Neither of the actors is playing sexy, but the non-verbal cues are all over the place, and if you find either of these performers appealing on a bad day, you won't stand a chance in LABOR DAY. But the film is far more about what's going on in the head than anything physical, and Reitman brings a nice, mature approach to the material, turning what might have been more like THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and making it into something more enlightened about the needs of these fractured souls. I came to feel for everyone in the movie in one way or another, and that's a rarity. Perhaps not for everyone, but I found a great deal of heart and understanding in this lovely work.