“I’m a lot stronger than you think.” “I don’t doubt that.”
Henry (Gattlin Griffith) knows that one of these people is lying. Despite her reclusive tendencies, Adele (Kate Winslet) is just trying to protect her son. Frank (Josh Brolin) respects that; for an escaped convict, he’s empathetic from the get-go. Their new houseguest needs a place to hide and heal; then again, he’s not the only one.
Unfolding over the eponymous holiday weekend in 1987, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s “Labor Day” is as consistently assured a piece of filmmaking as any we’ve seen from the filmmaker and very much in keeping with the decreasingly glib nature of his output (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air,” “Young Adult”), although such naked sentiment does pile on in the home stretch.
Until then, the film is as wary of Frank as the Wheelers themselves are. It’s easy to assume the worst of a man who readily admits his post-surgery escape from a nearby hospital, a man whose murder conviction is all over the news. Once he makes a point of tying up Adele, Frank goes about making chili with equal determination, matched in fervor by Rolfe Kent’s initially ominous score. However, he makes a point of sharing his meal, and it’s not long before he unties Adele, plays catch with Henry and generally attends to household repairs. By the time you can say “Stockholm syndrome,” all three are making pies together and wondering if this stranger really should leave so soon.
Brolin strikes a strong enough balance of conviction and consideration to offset Frank’s nigh saint-like behavior, and Winslet makes it very apparent that he might be just the man that a woman as fragile as Adele needs. She wasn’t always this way, of course -- the title comes to earn an expectedly tragic dual meaning -- and Reitman takes his time weaving in both of their backstories, but we gather subtle details as Frank makes his way around the Wheeler home and whenever Henry goes off to spend time with Dad (Clark Gregg) and his new family.
An older Henry (Tobey Maguire) narrates much of the story, and Eric Steelberg’s cinematography and the immersive amount of period detail combine to make his wistful ode to a Summer That Changed Everything equal parts immediately dangerous and fondly recalled. The only hints of Reitman’s earlier sensibilities tend to crop up whenever young Henry ventures back out into the world, either to mouth off at his father or to court a snarky-beyond-her-years peer (Brighid Fleming). Amidst it all, Griffith holds his own as an often wide-eyed teen coming to grips with both his own adult desires and those of actual grown-ups.
As understandable as it will be to compare “Labor Day” to similar coming-of-age-with-crooks yarns “Mud” and “A Perfect World,” Reitman’s decidedly mature work here on both page and screen also evokes the remove of Todd Field, although maybe seeing a suburban Kate Winslet struggling to attain happiness (as in Field’s “Little Children” or in “Revolutionary Road”) adds an echo all its own. Only the epilogue feels like a prolonged surrender to more maudlin tendencies, an irony that may leave one wanting “Labor Day” to end sooner than its own characters do.
SCORE: 7.7 / 10
“Labor Day” will open in limited release on December 25th.