If the development of an artist’s career did in fact advance logically, Jason Reitman’s next film would be a new version of Peter Pan wryly punctuated by voice-over commentary from an older, slightly worldlier Wendy Darling. All of his major films (excepting 2007’s Juno) have a markedly boyish tone to them, and the nature of adolescence appears to haunt him, though not in the same manner as it haunts most of us who have had the misfortune to experience it. He is oddly at ease with the prospect of boyhood revisited, and the storyline of Labor Day, his latest offering, covers territory that will be familiar to those acquainted with his last half dozen films.
Labor Day tells the story of Adele and Henry (Kate Winslet and newcomer Gattlin Griffin), a mother and son recently abandoned by her unfaithful husband who are now living in a rundown old home on the outskirts of Everytown, USA. Adele is emotionally traumatized from the infidelity of her husband and the numerous miscarriages that she suffered in the course of her marriage. She has become a near recluse, and her son Henry is old enough to understand her sadness but impotent to relieve it. The neatly economic first act of the film shows us this much, and the unnecessary voice-over of an adult Henry (Toby Maguire) explains the finer points of the dilemma in case we missed anything.
During their monthly trip to the town’s supermarket, Adele and Henry are accosted by Frank (Josh Brolin), a runaway convict who is badly injured and in need of a place to go to ground until the police hunt has cooled off. He tells Adele to let him hide in her house and she acquiesces. It does not take long for them to see that Frank is not a blackguard, and only slightly longer for Frank and Adele to fall in love. Once the film reaches this stage it gains in interest. The melancholy and loneliness of Brolin’s and Winslet’s characters facilitates their romance and its credibility on screen. If Brolin is not an actor with an infinity of tricks up his sleeve, he at least commands the rare ability to present a kind of tense fortitude that is distantly removed from the province of mere brutality. Here we can believe the combination of qualities that earlier led him to prison but also win for him the trust of the mother and her son.
Though the fact is not highlighted in the story, his attraction to Adele has a penitential shade; Frank’s imprisonment was directly related to his loss of his wife and infant son, and an important latter act turn in the film hinges on a sacrifice Frank makes on behalf of Adele and Henry. Adele regains something of the joy and confidence she had lost before. Henry finds in Frank the dependable father figure previously missing from his life, though Reitman makes surprisingly little dramatic use of this. For a film whose organic matter would seem from the outside to be sure to pull at the heartstrings, Labor Day is strangely unemotional, which fact underscores the occasionally caustic retrospective commentary of Henry’s older self. Reitman does not supply us with the wet-hanky fodder that most nostalgiac directors would seize on instinctively. Childhood fascinates him as much as it fascinates Spielberg, but he does not so easily abandon the perspective of an adult. Labor Day shares a common kinship with Stand By Me rather than A.I. or Empire of the Sun.
Reitman has a good sense of how to play to his actors’ strengths. No one in the cast merely fills empty space on the screen, a strength illustrated by a late scene in a diner where Henry’s biological father (Clark Gregg) explains (and quietly apologizes) to Henry for his former abandonment of Adele on account of another woman. Kate Winslet turns in what may be her best performance yet, and shows that she can play agitated frailty like no other. Labor Day is unfortunately not the sort of film that wins Oscars in today’s awards climate, and even its strategic December release is unlikely to win it much consideration from the academy. It is too quiet a film not to be confused with the altogether conventional, which is more the pity. It would be a blessing to have more room in our multiplexes for this kind of quiet.