Film: Labor Day
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith
Genre/Style: Drama, Coming of Age, Romance
Labor Day is one of those films that left me pleasantly surprised and moved by the emotional journey of the characters. It’s reminiscent of the movies made in the ‘90s, you know the ones with the narrator looking back at the moment he/she came of age in a nostalgic throwback to a specific time period. Think The Sandlot without the baseball! In Labor Day, the film is narrated by Tobey Maguire (an older Henry) telling the story of his Labor Day weekend when he was thirteen back in the ‘80s. By having the story told from the perspective of a teenager, the film becomes something much more than just a romance. Despite being advertised as a love story, what this film really is, is a coming of age story and that’s what ultimately helps this film succeed.
Labor Day tells the story from the eyes of Henry Wheeler who is torn between his mother and father in what was a messy divorce. He spends almost all of his time with his mother Adele who suffers from depression and agoraphobia and is barely able to ever leave the house. It’s on one of these rare expeditions outside to the grocery store that Henry and Adele cross paths with Frank Chambers, an escaped convict who convinces them to hide him in their house during Labor Day weekend. At first, the tension of fear of whether or not he’s going to kill them overtakes Adele. But soon, the three bond which eventually turns into a romance between Frank and Adele. On top of that, Frank becomes the much needed father figure to Henry. As the story unfolds, you learn exactly why Frank was in prison as well as why Adele has trapped herself to the house. Both Frank and Adele were in different types of prisons until they ultimately find each other and come back to life, freeing themselves from their metaphorical prisons.
Labor Day has been panned by the critics for being too sappy as well as spreading the message that this supports the idea of women being with abusive men. While this is a sentimental story that pulls on the heartstrings (I believe told in a sincere way), it is not about promoting abusive relationships. And while Frank is intimidating at first, if looked at objectively, he is not abusive. Yes, he ties up Adele at first so the police won’t accuse her of aiding and abetting a fugitive. And yes, he is a little bit scary at first. He is an escaped convict after all. But, as we, the audience, get to know him as a character it becomes pretty clear that this is not some kind of abuse fantasy. Frank really is a good man who made a mistake in the past and is out looking for redemption. This is a very optimistic film, which nowadays has become unpopular amidst all the dark, cynical and violent realism permeating stories usually being told. It has become easy to mock stories that take a positive, uplifting and hopeful approach instead.
That said, one of the best parts of this film were the performances. Kate Winslet shines in this role as the anxiety ridden Adele suffering from severe agoraphobia. She received a Golden Globe nomination for this performance and deservedly so. The emotions she presents in this film are simply touching. Her acting as a depressed woman is mesmerizing. In one suspenseful scene after the other, Adele must face her fears and go out into the world so the three of them can run away together, despite the police looking for Frank. She is so filled with anxiety when she has to try to get some money out of her bank account that we, the audience, are anxious with her. She just looks guilty with wide eyes and trembling hands. Winslet doesn’t pretty herself up for the role either.
In fact, the role of Adele is a fantastically layered female character. In many ways, she is “weak.” She can barely take care of her son, she’s agoraphobic, etc…And not only that, unlike the typical way women are presented on screen with perfect hair and makeup at all times, Adele is presented as real, flaws and all. She’s in her thirties, but you can see fine lines and tiredness. Her hair is often a mess. Not only that, her backstory is actually relatable to women, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit into a PC picture of what makes a good female character. And that’s exactly why she is a good female character. She becomes a character we can empathize with.
Besides Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin is also perfectly cast as the lonesome convict with a colorful past. We do learn by the end of the film what crime he convicted, and it’s not quite what you expect. Brolin goes from intense, to loving and caring. He plays the mysterious well, but as the layers are uncovered about whom this Frank really is, we learn to like and respect him as a person, even if he has made mistakes. He’s someone worthy of redemption and even love. But the real scene stealer of the film was the actual star: Gattlin Griffith as young Henry.
He carries the film with ease and likeability like a young Leonardo Dicaprio, Elijah Wood, or even, yes, Tobey Maguire. The film would have failed without the presence of a strong teen actor, and he didn’t disappoint.
One of the best scenes of the film was when the three make a pie together. One of Frank’s talents as a character is that he is a really good cook. This particular scene is pivotal to the entire story as it inspires Henry’s entire life and the choices he makes in the future.
The scene is sensual, romantic and will make you want peach pie even if you aren’t typically a fan of peach pie (like me). Together, they roll the dough, make the sauce, and create the crust… Adele’s hands reveal a tremor from bad nerves (one she’s had for a while now as revealed by the older Henry), but Frank doesn’t judge. Instead, he helps her. The two grow closer in this scene; the subtext and dialogue hinting to their growing feelings of love for each other.
Not only does it develop the romance, but it also develops the Father/Son dynamic between Henry and Frank. It is with this moment that a seed is planted in Henry. Frank inspires him with this making of the pie playing a key role in Henry’s life.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some romance novel clichés presented in the film. You know, the introverted and lonely woman who falls for the convict. But it’s done in such a way that takes out the ripping bodices and instead replaces it with sensuality and wholesomeness rather than outright sexuality. This is from the young boy’s perspective after all.
In all, I rather enjoyed the film from start to finish. It’s never boring, there’s fantastic characterization and it’s a lovely throwback to films of the past with that coming of age style with nostalgia thrown into the mix. Not only that, the film tries to tell a real story without worrying about being PC. I appreciate that. People are messy, and these characters are definitely presented as such. Without giving too much away, the film ends in a way that should be satisfying to the viewers. If you’re naturally a cynic then the ending of this film will probably have you rolling your eyes. But I happen to not be a cynic, and the majority of the people coming out of the theater I watched the film with were also not cynics. People were crying and moved by the ending of the film. So if you like movies that have a clear beginning, middle and end, good characters, some romance thrown in, then you should definitely check this movie out. It will be worth your time. If for nothing else, at least give it a try for Kate Winslet’s performance.
“You had me at hello.”
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.
I have loved none but you.”
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