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Labor Day Movie Review

Labor Day (2013) movie poster Labor Day

Theatrical Release: December 27, 2013 / Running Time: 111 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jason Reitman / Writers: Joyce Maynard (novel), Jason Reitman (screenplay)

Cast: Kate Winslet (Adele Wheeler), Josh Brolin (Frank Chambers), Gattlin Griffith (Henry Wheeler), Tobey Maguire (Adult Henry Wheeler), Tom Lipinski (Young Frank Chambers), Maika Monroe (Mandy), Clark Gregg (Gerald), James Van Der Beek (Officer Treadwell), J.K. Simmons (Mr. Jervis), Brooke Smith (Evelyn), Brighid Fleming (Eleanor), Alexie Gilmore (Marjorie), Lucas Hedges (Richard), Micah Fowler (Barry), Chandra Thomas (Bank Teller), Matthew Rauch (Bank Manager), Doug Trapp (Grocer), Dylan Minnette (Henry Wheeler - 16)

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When he's not directing from an original Diablo Cody script, Jason Reitman is using one he personally adapted from a novel. Labor Day sees him doing the latter,
as he translates Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel of the same name to the big screen.

The union of Maynard's book and Reitman's camera isn't obvious. Until now, he's told contemporary stories with comedic overtones and a healthy dose of cynicism. Labor Day is set in the past, September 1987's holiday weekend, and is dramatic, romantic, and almost entirely unironic.

In scenic small-town New Hampshire, a setting wonderfully established in the opening titles' visuals, 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his divorced mother Adele (Kate Winslet). With trembly hands and a loneliness that no "Husband for a Day" coupon booklet can cure, Adele is a bit of a wreck. She only leaves the house once a month to stock up on groceries and other essentials. That monthly occasion happens to fall on the Friday before Labor Day on which the movie opens. While mother and son are looking to buy pants that will actually fit the growing boy, Henry is approached by Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a bleeding and serious man who exerts just as much force is needed to get the Wheelers to allow him into their home to rest and hide.

In "Labor Day", Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and Adele (Kate Winslet) help Frank (Josh Brolin) make a peach pie in the way Joyce Maynard's mother did.

Frank doesn't lie about his situation. He's an escaped convict, having eluded authorities with a post-appendectomy second story hospital window jump that set him free in the midst of a long prison sentence. The escape is all over the news in this little community where cashiers and bank tellers know Henry by name. Frank promises not to harm Adele and Henry, saying he's never intentionally harmed anyone and explaining that his murder conviction isn't quite what it seems.

We come to see that over the course of the movie, as ambiguous flashbacks (featuring the uncannily-cast Tom Lipinski as the young Frank) eventually add Frank to the ranks of Andy Dufresne and Dr. Richard Kimble as a convict-im of circumstance. Frank is as saintly a runaway prisoner as you could ever hope to encounter. While he awaits a train to take him away, he teaches Henry how to throw a baseball, waxes the floor, cleans the gutters, and indulges in sensual preparation of chili and a delectable-looking peach pie, the latter drawing oohs and aahs from my fellow moviegoers.

Frank ties Adele to a chair briefly for appearances, but neither she nor her son appear to be in any real harm from their houseguest. In fact, over the course of a few days, the three of them are making plans to start a new life on Canada's Prince Edward Island with a hasty post-holiday move. That's an iffy premise that Maynard is selling us, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome-based Harlequin Romance. But Reitman and his cast pull it off, persuading us to shun better judgment in pursuit of this unlikely yet highly promising rebirth. The three are almost immediately at ease with each other in their backyard baseball game (which seems remarkably brazen, given the neighborhood's closeness and alertness) and pie-making. Plus Henry wouldn't be missing much if taken away from his weekly dinner with his father (Clark Gregg) and Dad's new family.

Escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) gets a ride from single mother Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in "Labor Day."

Henry is the film's protagonist and he comes of age before our eyes. His sexual awakening confuses him and doesn't make clear the unusual situation at hand,
even when a new girl in town (Brighid Fleming) with an eating disorder and a broken family tries to enlighten him on the intoxicating nature of desire.

Reitman elevates the material with his deliberate, atmospheric presentation. Everything -- from Henry's short shorts and full hair to a television broadcast of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to a Friendly's family outing -- captures the setting of late '80s New England in a subtle yet savory way. There's slight nostalgia in that setting. As a child of the '80s, Reitman seems to remember quite well a time when you might bring an excess of ripe peaches to a neighbor's door and there were no smart phones to keep checking. Undoubtedly, Maynard's story would not be the same set in the present day.

What emerges as this kind of fantastical romantic drama gets a hearty serving of suspense in its final half-hour or so, when our central trio's best-laid plans are endangered by the smallest detail or coincidence. Even if you aren't compelled to vocalize such fears (as parts of my screening audience did), you'll feel that tension deep in your stomach, genuinely uncertain of how well or poorly this could all turn out for its participants.

With the helm occupied by Reitman, whose Juno and Up in the Air snagged Best Picture nominations, Labor Day was long foreseen as a potential awards player. Those expectations seemed cemented when Paramount set a Christmas Day opening and a Toronto International Film Festival premiere. Then in November, its year-end slate subjected to jostling by the editing delays of The Wolf of Wall Street, the studio moved Labor Day from its scheduled December debut to the wide late-January release it begins today. The film still received a one-week awards qualifying run starting December 27th. Now, it gets to be discovered without the glut and caliber of competition the holidays bring.

While it may have hurt the award prospects (it picked up nothing but an Actress in a Drama Golden Globe nomination for Winslet), the move should help the film find an audience, from the Valentine's Day couples' boost through a pre-Mother's Day home video debut. Yes, Reitman has made a tender movie for moms, which is uncharacteristic given his past films, particularly the prickly and polarizing Young Adult. But it's a well-crafted, well-acted drama you'd feel much better about buying Mom than the latest Nicholas Sparks drivel.

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Related Reviews:
Golden Globe Actress Nominees:
Blue Jasmine Saving Mr. Banks August: Osage County American Hustle Before Midnight Nebraska Gravity Frances Ha

Directed by Jason Reitman: Young Adult Juno | Tobey Maguire: The Ice Storm The Great Gatsby
Kate Winslet: Revolutionary Road Titanic Finding Neverland Contagion | Gattlin Griffith: Under the Bed
Josh Brolin: No Country for Old Men True Grit (2010) Men in Black 3 Gangster Squad You Will Met a Tall Dark Stranger The Goonies

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Reviewed January 31, 2014.

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