If you can get past the central premise—and that’s a big if—in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, you’ll be rewarded with rich performances and an unabashed romanticism that, while perhaps unbelievable, also somehow works.
Set in 1987 on the outskirts of a Mayberry-esque hamlet, it’s clear right away that Adele (Kate Winslet) is the most depressed person in her small New Hampshire town. She’s a divorced mother to son Henry (Gattlin Griffin) and an agoraphobic lonely heart shuttered up in a decaying farmhouse; she never smiles and has that faraway look in her eyes, as if so consumed by the past she can’t stake a claim to the present. When Kate Winslet can’t find love, even in Small Town U.S.A, what hope do the rest of us have?
Thirteen-year-old Henry, wrestling with feelings of first attraction to girls and his own sexual awakening, feels the pain of his mother’s emotional withdrawal to the tune that he works overtime to cheer her up, even pretending to be her “husband for a day,” which includes her teaching him to slow-dance in the living room. Cute.
Enter Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a fugitive on the run whom Henry takes a shine to in the local supermarket and who too easily coerces lonely Adele to drive him home, intending to hide out until the heat over his escape from a local hospital dies down. Reluctant but fearing for herself and her son’s safety, she agrees.
And that’s the credulity-stretching set-up in Labor Day—a lonely woman meets a man who may, or may not, be unjustly imprisoned, and the pair fall nearly instantly in love in the course of a few days over Labor Day weekend, bonding over his perfect peach pie crust, handyman skills and his growing compassion for mother and son. Perhaps he did kill someone once — but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good man in all the other departments. And it helps that Frank strongly resembles the movie star Josh Brolin.
What really makes Adele tick? Is she suffering from low self-esteem? Can’t she do better? Come on, we tell ourselves, this is Kate Winslet here, that equally sensual and brainy goddess, adept at playing voluptuously depressed tragic heroines in films such as Titanic, Little Children, Revolutionary Road, The Reader and most especially Mildred Pierce. Her work here is, as typical for her, emotionally complex and precise enough to cut glass, particularly in a late-picture flashback of immense impact.
And Brolin is quietly affecting here, with perhaps the more difficult job of hinting at Frank’s demons while conveying his goodness; this isn’t merely a wronged, studly archetype from a romance novel.
With a screenplay by director Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You for Smoking) based on Joyce Maynard’s bestselling novel, the picture may overall be the directors’ least successful, but it represents a marked attempt to deliver an adult romance, something new for him—and that’s pleasing, however mixed the results might be.
Reitman effectively weaves two stories here—the present love story and the haunting past transgressions weighing on both Adele and Frank, and once their stories are revealed their symmetry isn’t so hard to swallow, and sort of makes sense—at least enough to get past the Stockholm Syndrome-set-up.
Labor Day also has a distinctly accurate grasp on the rhythms of locals and small town life, including nosy, well-meaning neighbors, well played by J.K. Simmons and especially Brooke Smith, and a suspicious local sheriff in James Van Der Beek, who as small town sheriffs often do, senses something amiss in the usually placid air. And Clark Gregg turns up as Henry’s well-meaning father, remarried and out of touch.
An appealing development comes in the arrival of a new student from Chicago, smartly played by young actress Elena Kampouris, who piques Henry’s hormones and sees right through his secrets.
As the cornered lovers, Winslet and Brolin act with such tenderness they make you forget your quibbles. I cared greatly for the characters in Labor Day, and by the time the final minutes unspooled, which play like ultimate fantasy wish fulfillment for the Nicolas Sparks crowd, I was willing to hitch a ride north of the border right along with the doomed lovers.