A romance is at the center of Labor Day. The plot hinges on it. The characters are motivated by it. The emotional resolution for all involved depends upon it. And I didn’t buy it, not even for a second.
The movie is about a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) who only leaves the house once a month, taking her 12-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith) with her to load up on four weeks of groceries and supplies. That’s what they’re doing at the start of the movie, heading out on their monthly shopping trip on the Thursday before Labor Day, 1987. There they are confronted by a man (Josh Brolin) with a small circle of blood on the side of his white shirt. He calmly and quietly intimidates them into giving him a ride. He stalks with them out to the car, gets in the back seat, and tells her to drive. Where to? “Your house,” he says. Once there, he agrees to not hurt them in exchange for allowing him to hide out. You see, he’s a prisoner who escaped mere hours before. He would much rather wait out the manhunt and skip off through the woods and onto a train than have to return and serve out the rest of his 18-year stay behind bars.
Where’s the romance in this, you ask? Why, it develops between Winslet and Brolin. She, trembling and morose, and he, quiet charisma, are drawn into each other’s emotional orbits as a hurt and depressed woman finds her neediness and loneliness complimented and matched by a criminal with neediness and loneliness that’s something like hers. Eventually, artful flashbacks tucked into the corners of scenes in our present day narrative reveal that these characters have gone through some infant-related traumas and significant others who have long since left one way or another. They’re both damaged, but together they feel like life might be okay now that someone understands them. But that’s all sitting under the narrative like sap about to be tapped until it drains out in great globs of sentimentality. At first the situation is simply menacing – a bloody escaped prisoner quickly and calmly muscles his way into the home of a child and defenseless parent! But the movie watches him make chili, teach them his recipe for peach pie, and set about fixing loose steps and changing the furnace filter. What a guy.
The only people who can truly understand a relationship are the ones living it. This one’s all about longing and deprivation, two people who have been alone for so long, trapped (in prison, in her thoughts), but ready to let desire to connect set off sparks. It’s an adult attraction that goes over the son’s head, but not the film’s. It’s a physical, sticky film, the muggy late-August small-town setting closing in. The characters are sweaty all the time, clothes sticking, hair slick and matted. Everyone seems uncomfortable and overheated. No wonder it’s such a perfect setting for passions to come to a boil, and then boil over. I’m all for good, honest melodrama, and Labor Day is nothing but earnest. But it never finds a convincing way of moving the pieces of the puzzle into a believable place. I just never bought that Winslet’s character, so hesitant and cautious, would let that caution slip for a character like Brolin’s, a clear and immediate threat. I understand getting caught in the dangerous situation, but not the way he so quickly erodes her suspicion.
The story is told from the son’s point of view. Nostalgia-soaked narration provided by Tobey Maguire as the now-grown son strings events along, filling in some psychological shading without cracking open the central attraction. He’s suspicious for sure, tentatively accepting some father-figure bonding (praise, a nickname, baseball tips), while worrying about his mother’s well-being. To a certain extent, the point of view excuses some of the romance’s inherent unknowability, but not its unbelievability. It’s a shame the film’s core falls flat while there is this wonderful characterization of the boy on the cusp of a big change. Griffith is far and away more believable than the adults anchoring the drama.
The young actor has a boyish face cut with faint adolescent angles, softly innocent with a faint awareness of adult matters creeping underneath. The film is best when focused on his mental state, on this liminal space between childhood playfulness and teenage roiling. There’s an early throwaway detail in front of a magazine rack as he has a moment of hesitant embarrassed curiosity, reaching for a glamour magazine with an alluring cover model before pulling away towards a rack of comic books when he sees someone nearby. Another scene in which he has an abstractly sensual dream – a rapid-fire montage of winking cover models, a half-remembered bra strap’s outline as seen through a classmate’s t-shirt, and an imagined embrace – is potent. The experience of being a 7th-grade boy is so nicely observed, I found myself wishing the film would become less relentlessly focused on its increasingly strained plot.
But it does have a plot, adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard by Jason Reitman. He’s swerving hard away from the genre on which he’s made his name, largely convincing character-study comedies of various flavors: satiric (Thank You For Smoking), workplace/romantic (Up in the Air), dark (Young Adult), and teen-centric (Juno). It’s too early to tell if this is a minor experiment or a change in direction for his career, but it’s nice to see a promising director willing to try something new, even if it doesn’t work. Labor Day, though attractively shot with lovely cinematography by Eric Steelberg and having a great sense of place and a well-cast ensemble, never comes together. Quivering with import on details of its drama, characters are moved around under the assumption that we’re with them, while I cringed, hoping someone would eventually make the right decision. Turns out, the movie and I were rooting for different outcomes.
Labor Day has thriller mechanics ticking under the sentimentality. It should and sometimes does play as a rooting interest in the boy or one of the townspeople (neighbors Brooke Smith and J.K. Simmons, police officer James Van Der Beek) finding the right moment to let the world know the fugitive is here, swooping in and saving Winslet from falling for him. This consensual kidnapping is in severe need of deflation before the sentimental music twinkles and the sun-dappled cinematography sells us on a romance that’s The Desperate Hours by way of Nicholas Sparks. But, no, love it is, maybe even True Love. And it never feels right to me, especially as the son shifts his eyes, and the score scrapes out suspense whenever Brolin gets close to caught. I wanted him to go back to jail, and the movie just plain won’t work if that’s the case.