TIFF13 REVIEW: Labor Day [2013]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 111 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Jason Reitman
Writer(s): Jason Reitman / Joyce Maynard (novel)

“I understood who my real family was: her.”

If anyone questioned whether or not Jason Reitman was truly a great director or merely someone with excellent luck at choosing projects—I remember thinking his Best Director nod for Juno was premature myself—Labor Day should set the record straight. And that’s despite his introduction before its third screening at the Toronto International Film Festival thanking his crew for making it seem he knew what he was doing. It’s very much a different beast than his previous works, pushing comedy to the side for poignant drama and surprising romance despite an impossibly difficult situation. He consistently gets stellar performances from his cast, has a rhythm for impeccable pacing, and quite honestly finds a way to make even the most contrived situations drip with authenticity.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, the central plot of an escaped convict seeking refuge with a divorcee and her son is merely a springboard towards a gradual understanding of where each character is coming from and where they may be going. As Frank (Josh Brolin) often says, “There’s more to the story.” He’s talking about the murder he was sentenced to eighteen years for that we catch broken glimpses of through flashback, but the words are just as relevant to how Adele (Kate Winslet) and young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) found themselves at the Pricemart the fateful Thursday afternoon that brought him into their lives. Despite everyone having demons and an inherent psychological trauma, hope for better always exists no matter how dark our pasts.

This is the concept behind second chances at freedom, love, friendship, or life. We all have a story to tell full of guilt and regret, but it’s how we make up for the pain and suffering we wrought that defines our character. Does that mean a convicted murderer should escape out of a hospital window and charismatically work his way into the home of a mother and son? Is that how he should pay his debt to God, his victim, and his own soul? No. But there’s something about his actions that make you trust him—even after you know who he is. There is a kindness behind his squinting severity, a purely non-violent nature rendering his scary moments products of fear rather than a desire for torture.

Told through Henry’s point of view looking back—as narrated by Tobey Maguire‘s much older version of the seventh grader—we listen as he’s wrapping his head around his lot in life. Adele hasn’t really left the house since her divorce, nervously shakes when she does, and needs Henry to watch out for her in case she becomes unraveled. His father (Clark Gregg) means well by trying to include the boy in his new family with two other kids every week, but he doesn’t understand what happens Monday through Saturday. Or at least we don’t think he does considering we’re in the dark as to the facts behind their break-up. No, Adele needs Henry and he needs her if only to know he’s quite literally her world.

Frank confuses things by preying upon them as captor before quickly providing a masculine touch the house desperately needed. But as much as Labor Day is a romance—Reitman made it clear in his speech that’s what this story is—between Adele and Frank, it’s also an affecting coming-of-age drama for Henry. With lustful desires bubbling under the surface, it’s an awakening for him to witness an uninhibited joy and sexuality from his mother with a man by her side. All those times he sweetly hired himself as her “husband for the week” couldn’t have prepared him for understanding what that job entails emotionally and physically besides house chores. And as Adele’s desire awakens, so too does Henry’s with the arrival of Eleanor (Brighid Fleming) to town.

I found myself getting lost in this authentic sense of a family forming courtesy of Frank’s kindness and warmth with both of his “hostages”. To do so, however, means to give into its plot’s implausibility by willfully suspending disbelief at the whirlwind one-eighty turning a mother’s fear into a lover’s embrace. You must trust the script will provide enough detail to make it believable while letting the suspense that takes over the film when this idyllic romance is interrupted by knocks at the door help you due to the stakes escalating beyond one man on the run. If anyone finds out what’s actually happening behind Adele’s closed doors this long weekend, everyone inside the house will be arrested and charged with a crime.

This dynamic riveted me with every passing second as hiccups either jeopardize everything or ultimately turn into one more example of this supposedly violent criminal’s unwavering compassion. We smile as the happiness in Winslet’s and Brolin’s faces overcomes the brevity of their courtship by portraying their bond’s intensity and recoil in breathless anticipation as he reflexively grabs her or Henry when danger looms. Rather than simply leave us with this juxtaposition to personally choose optimism or pessimism, though, Reitman shares his kinetically montaged flashbacks to better make an informed decision. Each day ends as another begins with thoughts of a future together as tension comes to a boil with each reconciling his/her actions by moving forward and forgetting the direness of their situation.

These three central performances are amazingly complex and introspective with each actor providing the perfect mix of apprehension and confidence when the moment calls for one or the other. It’s easy to accept Brolin as a man of honor despite the inflammatory remarks heard on the television just as it’s easy to let Winslet give herself so completely to this stranger. And Griffith, well he’s our transparent mirror to enter the story, spying through closed doors, making youthful mistakes, and growing beyond the constraints of childhood amidst this intensely unorthodox situation right alongside him. They all exist inside this microcosm of love and family sped up to an unnatural speed that will shatter it into a million pieces with one wrong step.

In the end recollections are always skewed—especially those of children—so the tiny, emotional moving parts of his mother’s psyche paired with his own hormonal changes must have muddied some facts, right? As a result, you can’t help wondering if Stockholm Syndrome is at play with Henry’s desire for happiness changing the details from violent hostage situation into a fondly hopeful memory. This question of whether anything was truly real lingered, rendering the authenticity of what I saw onscreen even more moving as Winslet and Brolin warmed my heart and devastated it in equal measure. They show that passion and forgiveness in one’s self and others despite preconceptions is always available. You just have to be willing to open your eyes and accept it no matter the cost.

[1] courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
[2] (Left to right) Gattlin Griffith is Henry, Josh Brolin is Frank and Kate Winslet is Adele in LABOR DAY directed by Jason Reitman to be released by Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush. (c) MMXII Paramount Pictures Corporation and Frank’s Pie Company LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Kate Winslet is Adele in LABOR DAY directed by Jason Reitman to be released by Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush. (c) MMXII Paramount Pictures Corporation and Frank’s Pie Company LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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