In the summer of 1987, Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith ) is just about ready to start a new year of school. The story is narrated by the older version of himself (Tobey Maguire) as Harry tells about his life and how he takes care of his depressed, anxious, and agoraphobia-ridden mother Adele (Kate Winslet) after his dad (Clark Gregg) left and married the babysitter. Henry dotes on his mother, playing "husband for a day," and being more adult and responsible than the average kid.
On the Thursday before the Labor Day weekend, Henry convinces his mother to come with him to the store, where they're coerced into taking an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) home with them so he can hide from the authorities. Both Adele and Henry don't know how to react to this stranger, whose past seems dangerous. And really, who would know how to react to something like this? The fight or flight part of the brain is working over-time for these two at this point.
But Frank is persuasive and doesn't show any real signs of hurting them. He ties up Adele in case the cops come by to make it look like he was holding them against their will. Besides that, however, Frank is portrayed as the perfect and ideal man. He cooks for the mother/son duo, cleans, teaches them to make pie, fixes things around the house and the car. He teaches Harry how to play baseball and slowly begins to pull Adele out of her depression.
Labor Day, based on the book by Joyce Maynard, is one of those films that seems like it'll be really good and really dramatic, in all the best ways. And perhaps the book reads better than the film, but in this case the movie's parts are often greater than the whole. As in, some parts really work, others really don't. This results in a film that moves too slow and screams for audiences to root for its characters and the love story, but many of the film's themes are too questionable to garner that kind of reaction.
This is not to say that the film doesn't make you feel anything, because it does. Anything with Kate Winslet in a lead role will make you feel something, but these emotions might not be positive ones here. Themes of patriarchy, misogyny, and the perfect man swooping in and saving the woman are not lost on the audience and inherently frustrating all around.
No, Frank doesn't cure Adele or anything, but he does help her to somewhat live again. And while that may sound like a good thing, the movie spawns ideals of being in love with love and unrealistic ideas that don't help in sympathizing completely with these characters at all. It's basically trying to say that a woman needs a man in order to be able to live her life, even if it's a man you know nothing about or why he was convicted.
Also frustrating is how quick Adele and Henry warm up to Frank without really knowing about what he did to end up in jail or anything about his past. Suspicion kind of flies out the window after the second day with no questions asked. Some things are forced, like the thrown-in almost-girlfriend of Henry's, who helps him build some kind of paranoia that's meant to add an extra layer of plot but doesn't help move anything forward. It instead just sits there with nowhere to go.
One thing that is bold of the film, however, is its focus on Adele's depression, anxiety, and borderline panic. In 1987, these types of things weren't taken very seriously or really treated. And even in movies, they're not given much attention, so it's refreshing to see a lead character have all these things to work through, making the reveal at the end a little more interesting. Ultimately, though, it's lost amongst all the ridiculous idealism that the movie throws around like it's nothing.
It's surprising that an actress like Kate Winslet, who generally takes roles of gutsy, more out spoken women, takes the role of Adele who's the complete opposite. But then again, she's nothing if not eclectic in her film choices. She paints Adele in a blurry light at the beginning of the movie. Always out of it, panicked, anxious, hands shaking. But these nuances in every scene help her to fully develop into a character you kind of understand by the end of the film and start to really feel for, even if it's a little too late by then.
Josh Brolin keeps his expression neutral, more or less. It's the type of expression where you question whether or not you can trust him, but it's still somehow open and honest. His character, unfortunately, isn't very three-dimensional and ultimately falls flat. Even though he's supposed to be this "perfect man," that actually becomes a ridiculously major nuisance instead.
Labor Day is a film you'll really want to like, but find that you just can't. It boasts good performances but lacks the fluidity of a well-plotted movie and plays out like a book without using its screen time to its creative advantage. Some of the themes are too in-your-face and far too idealistic in nature to really warrant much feeling towards the entire story line. The plot can get frustrating, moves a little too slow, and the final payoff isn't all that fulfilling. It's a movie that tries too hard to be tension-filled and dramatic, but its thematic elements fail in the bigger scheme of things, all while throwing in our faces the controlling and mysterious man.