A little corniness forgivable in Reitman’s affecting new drama
Director Jason Reitman returns to the screen this weekend with Labor Day, the new film that he also co-wrote with Oakland writer Joyce Maynard, author of the book of the same name. The film has already received much advance buzz (and laughs) regarding its pie-baking scene (think not of the infamous American Pie apple pie sequence, but of the pottery scene in Ghost, and you’ll have an apt comparison), but the film deserves attention for more than just that brief snicker-inducing scene. Markedly different in tone from his previous breezy, often darkly comic pictures (Young Adult, Up in the Air, Juno), Labor Day is Reitman’s warmest, most straightforward, earnest film to date. The film is not perfect by any means – it is filled with plot points that strain credulity, and contains its fair share of corny dialogue – but if you can suspend some disbelief for two hours, you will be rewarded with an arresting, well-crafted story of almost unbearable tension.
Kate Winslet, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here (she lost to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine – tough competition, indeed) plays Adele, a reclusive, melancholy, divorced mother raising her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith, the latest in a slew of young actors to give terrific performances; see Mud and The Way, Way Back) in small-town New Hampshire. The reason for Adele’s virtually catatonic state is made clear eventually through effective flashbacks, which are interspersed with the present day story (the majority of the film takes place in 1987). Winslet exquisitely captures Adele’s sorrow and depression with her every look and tentative movement, but when she tells Frank, “I’m stronger than you think,” we know she has untapped reserves just waiting to be unleashed.
Adele’s small, sheltered world is disrupted when Frank (the always excellent Josh Brolin), an escaped convict, approaches Henry in a Walmart-type store while Henry is with his mother on one of their extremely rare outings; in fact, the only reason they have gone shopping is because Henry needs new clothes for school, which will be starting after the upcoming Labor Day weekend. Frank, weaponless and injured, somehow convinces Adele to drive him to her house and let him stay there until he’s healed enough to continue his journey – and with that we have the first utterly ridiculous plot point. That a mother – no matter how paralyzed with depression – would so willingly acquiesce to an unarmed man’s demands – in the middle of a huge department store, no less – and not shout for help, approach an employee or security guard, or just run to her car and drive away – is almost unfathomable. But if you take a deep breath, get your eye roll out of the way, and go with it, the rest of the narrative develops so suspensefully that you will literally be on the edge of your seat, and will be glad you let yourself fall into the story without overthinking it too much.
To say more about plot would spoil the great tension of this movie: who is Frank, exactly? Is he really a threat? Will he be found? If so, how and why will his capture happen? Watching the answers to these questions unfold is absolutely riveting, in part because of the romance that develops between Frank and Adele. Frank becomes an anti-hero of mythic proportions – yes, he’s an escaped convict, but, like Adele, he has a backstory to explain his present circumstances (also nicely rendered through flashbacks), and we see that he is a genuinely decent man – the type Adele (and young Henry, for that matter, who only sees his detached father – and his father’s new family – once a week) has been missing on a daily basis.
Indeed, Frank’s prison stint must have included a course called How To Be the Ideal Man for a Lonely Divorcée and her Sensitive Son, since Frank’s contributions to his hostages over the long weekend run the gamut from cleaning the gutters, changing the oil in the car and waxing the floors, to whipping up a batch of chili, teaching Henry how to throw a baseball, and ultimately, yes, to teaching Adele how to bake the world’s most erotic peach pie.
And what of that pie-making scene? As hokey as it may feel initially (the “rhythm and rising” of the baking pie is described in voice over narration by adult Henry (Tobey Maguire), just in case we don’t get the metaphor), the scene actually works well as a method of conveying the unspoken, long-dormant awakening passions of the two lonely, cautious, affection-starved characters. In a movie like Blue is the Warmest Color, the raw, explicit, on-screen physical sex scenes appropriately echoed the extreme intensity of the characters’ relationship. In contrast, Labor Day’s understated scene of something as quietly domestic – and yet sensual – as baking a peach pie together underscores the subtle intimacy and the undercurrent of attraction building between the emotionally wounded Frank and Adele. A bodice-ripping, no-holds barred bedroom scene would have just felt cheap, and would have been tonally off from the rest of the picture.
The film functions, though, not just as a heart-warming romance – though it is that – but also as a bittersweet coming-of-age story, as well as a top-notch suspense thriller. The confusion, fascination, and jealousy with which Henry observes his mother’s developing romance with Frank is achingly portrayed by Griffith, who does a remarkable job showcasing all the trials and joys of that awkward, scary stage between the safety of childhood and the freedoms of adulthood. Henry’s growing interest in a precocious, but somewhat mean-spirited girl named Eleanor (Brighid Fleming) is contrasted well with the adult romance he sees brewing before him.
In smaller roles, Clark Gregg as Henry’s father and Adele’s ex-husband Gerald, JK Simmons as a concerned neighbor, Brooke Smith as a short-tempered mother of one of Henry’s classmates, and even James Van Der Beek in a small role as a suspicious town cop all create vivid characters that ring true and seem like the eclectic types you might expect to find in an everyone-knows-each-other small town.
That Reitman can successfully meld these three different film genres into one picture, then, is impressive enough; add in the fact that he elicits such strong performances from his cast, and you have the recipe for a film worth seeing. Frank tells Adele in one of the films more hackneyed lines, “If you pay too much attention to recipes, you forget how to feel,” but, lucky for us, Reitman pays just the right amount of attention to his recipe. He has crafted a film filled with plenty of feelings: grace, love, and forgiveness.
Labor Day opens in Bay Area theaters today.