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Labor Day – Review
March 20, 2014
It seems like when he’s not directing a script written by Diablo Cody like he did with Young Adult in 2011 and Juno back in 2007, Jason Reitman likes to specialize in directing films based on novels he adapted. That’s what happened with his feature debut Thank You For Smoking (2005) and his multi-laurelled Up In The Air (2009). Now, with Labor Day, he makes his come back with yet another adaptation, this time around from Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same title. And he returns to what’s undoubtedly the kind of story he loves to tell: a coming of age tale analyzing the complex relationships between teenagers and their parental figures or lack there of. With this film he manages to take the ludicrously cheesy source material and work all of its flaws to his own advantage by delivering a film that brims with sensuous and mysterious tension, no matter how predictably things seem to unfold.
It’s Labor Day weekend in 1987 New Hampshire. Henry (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his agoraphobic mother Adele (Kate Winslet) who never leaves their decadent house except for a monthly trip to the store in order to stock on provisions. Henry is a loving and caring son on the cusp of teenagehood hence starting to get interested in girls but also trying to understand more about the complexity behind human feelings and relationships as he tries to make sense of why his father left his mother. Henry sees him every weekend for dinner and also gets to spend time with his father’s new family, the only occasion where he can pretend he has a normal life. But Henry’s monotonous and bleak status quo changes on that Labor Day weekend when he and his mother, during their monthly shopping run, bump into Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped and wounded convict who “forces” them to give him assistance.
Things seem to be a bit over the top from the get-go as Adele tries to overcome intimidation by claiming she’s stronger than she looks and Frank replying he believes her. Henry watches this weird flirting-through-threatening scene with the eager eyes of a kid who’s hungry for change, excitement and a steady father figure in his life. Frank has managed to escape while recovering in a hospital post-appendectomy but he hurt his leg jumping off the hospital window and his surgery stiches have opened up. He initially asks just for a ride to Adele and Henry’s home where he can be tended to, recoup and lay low for a night before getting back on the road. But as the police manhunt ensues and the sexual tension rises between Adele and Frank, you immediately know the guy is going to stick around for longer.
Adele is a depressed woman who practically has her son taking care of her. Henry is a devoted kid in that transitional coming of age phase, needing guidance. He can’t be everything for his mother, no matter how wise beyond his years he is or how much he does. Frank is what you’d call a charming gentleman criminal who shows up in the right place at the right time to save the day. Things are too conveniently concocted in this story to the point that’s impossible not to cringe when approached by such ludicrousness, yet some filmmaking magic manages take a hold of these ingredients and blend them in with stylistic beauty and an irresistible tension that latches onto your senses and doesn’t let go until the book-ended epilogue.
The film in fact has a narrator in adult Henry, played by Tobey Maguire, whose voiceover isn’t as intrusive and on the nose as one would expect by such material but actually a nice tracker of the film’s emotional arcs. This is Henry’s story after all and everything is seen through his eyes. So it’s inevitable that conflict is bound to arise when the seed of doubt about Frank’s intentions finds its way inside the boy’s mind, with a little help from the colorful advice of a new young girl in town who promptly becomes Henry’s first crush. Despite the News on TV reveal that Frank has been convicted for murder, he claims he’s never hurt anyone or at least not intentionally.
Truth is that aside from a couple of moments of tension when a nosy neighbor and a friend pay Adele and Henry an unexpected visit, Frank is simply a delight to have around. He cleans, cooks, fixes many broken things in the neglected house, teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball like a pro and most of all he bakes the most amazing peach pie you’ll ever taste. The scene where he shows off his culinary ability has such sensual undertones that you could argue he’s teaching Henry more than just how to bake the perfect crust.
It’s brilliant to witness the level of Jason Reitman’s craft in taking something that could’ve been just another Nicholas Sparks-esque kind of story and turn it into a compelling and entertaining piece of cinema that feels right out of the 80s not just for the impeccable production design and the gorgeous cinematography reproducing the era but simply through the rhythm of its storytelling. Aided by a wonderful cast with perfect chemistry, the film flows smoothly over the three days weekend, builds palpable tension through performances, editing and an understated score, and keeps you guessing until the very end.
Both Winslet and Brolin are pitch-perfect at harboring secrets that diligent and recurring flashbacks will bring to the surface along the way, one piece at a time and masterfully showing their characters’ evolution as they spend these few days together. Gattlin Griffith is one young thespian to watch as he plays Henry’s pre-teen innocence, curiosity and confusion with commendable and nonchalant realism, finding perfect timing with both his adult co-stars. Reitman continues an interesting path in his filmmaking career with a movie that some may find frustratingly silly but I believe to be quite ingenious at the way he manipulates the audience’s emotions with its old fashion lyrical beauty.
Labor Day is out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 21st
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor