Labor Day is the kind of movie that pulls you in slowly with its seductive style, memorable characters, and beautiful cinematography. With Labor Day, writer/director Jason Reitman proves that he is still one of the best in the business when it comes to telling quirky love stories (see Up in the Air and Juno for proof on this) full of multi-dimensional characters, witty dialogue, and endings that take pride in making us smile.
Adele (Kate Winslet) is a mess. Depressed, (borderline) agoraphobic, and a bit of a slob – the only thing she seems to care about is her pre-teen son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Adele’s husband left her several years ago and now she is lost in a fugue of self-deprecation, unable to get out of bed on many days and set foot outside of her house even less often. Henry loves his mother, but also sees how much she struggles with the easiest of tasks. When Adele and Henry manage to make their way to the grocery store one afternoon over Labor Day weekend, Henry meets Frank (Josh Brolin). Frank is an escaped prisoner on the run and looking for a place to lie low for a few days. Frank convinces Adele and Henry to take him back to their home so he can rest and decide what to do next. Adele, though scared for her and Henry, soon realizes that Frank doesn’t seem like that bad of a man. As Frank bonds with Henry and Adele, they begin to learn about his life and the event that led him to his imprisonment.
Labor Day has many great qualities. Writer/director Reitman understands how to build his characters so that we actually care about them and what happens to them. Here, his three main characters – Frank, Henry, and Adele, all feel like real people. In fact, at times it almost seems like Labor Day is based on a true story, but it’s not. That is a testament to Reitman and his performers’ ability to take the words written on paper and transform them into living, breathing people. Frank may be a convict, but as we learn more about him over the course of the film, he becomes the most likeable character – unsaddled with any of Adele’s angst and depression or Henry’s jealous indecision. He brings something to this family that is sorely missing; a father-figure that isn’t afraid to take charge but also relishes the idea of being the protector.
Another great thing about Labor Day is the look and feel that the film has. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg (who has worked with Reitman on most of his previous films) creates poetic images that perfectly capture the feeling of Labor Day in small-town America. Combined with Reitman’s direction, Labor Day actually rises above its source material and elevates into the realm of art rather than just popular entertainment.
The performances in Labor Day are uniformly excellent. Kate Winslet plays Adele with sadness but also a touch of hope. Even though at first she seems like a lost cause, when Frank enters the story, we see the conflicting emotions swimming through her head – a battle between the urge to protect her son and the excitement of finding a person again that she can truly care about. Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Frank is equally impressive. His ability to create a man that is at times both frightening and likeable is phenomenal. The more we learn about him, the more we like him. Watching these two masters play off one another is truly one of the best parts of Labor Day and gives the film its heart and soul.
Most people have probably never heard of Labor Day or barely remember when it came out. But like many great films that get ignored for the Hollywood blockbusters, Labor Day is a treasure of a film. Writer/director Jason Reitman creates another memorable film, full of characters, poetic images, and a story that reels us in and gives us a great payoff in the end. This one is definitely worth checking out.