Director Jason Reitman advances himself into new territory with his latest film Labor Day. Adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel, this is a departure from his dry, witty comedies that launched his career.
It is a film about being lonely, how much we need the touch of another human being, and longing for companionship despite how questionable the circumstances may be.
Reitman has directed a dark and dramatic character piece that really allows its star Kate Winslet to stand out.
Adele (Winslet) is a single mother struggling with crippling anxiety and depression after her divorce, while trying to raise her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). On a back-to-school shopping trip just before the Labor Day holiday weekend, the two of them encounter Frank (Josh Brolin) in the store, a man who is limping and bleeding from his abdominal. He asks them for a ride and a safe place to stay for a few hours. Adele very reluctantly agrees and drives them back to her house. Secretly she craves the excitement of something new. When they get back to the house, it is revealed that he is an escaped convict on the run.
Frank is a charming man, yet also very intimidating. Not wanting to get caught for aiding a fugitive, Adele and Henry do their best to hide Frank and deflect any intrusions that come up. Frank tells them that if the police come, he will tie them up to make it look like they are being held hostage instead of them getting caught in helping him. As the hours pass, Adele begins to grow appreciative of his presence. When nightfall comes, she tells him stay the night and wait until the morning to leave. A change is beginning in Adele; she is longing for his touch and quietly allows him to get close to her. She misses what a man can give her and Henry misses having a father that is supportive. Gradually over the long weekend, Adelle and Henry fall for Frank and don’t want him to leave. They create a plan as a new family to escape but circumstances change in an instant and the events transform each of them for the rest of their lives.The director creates an exquisite balance between the tension of having a convict in your house, and the compassion that Adele and Frank feel for each other. The gear shifts in Winslet’s performance are sublime. So much of the depth of the story comes not from the dialogue but from what is not said, from the looks, the simple touches, and the body language between her, her son Henry, and Frank. Both Adele and Frank go through a visible transformational arc in just several days of being with this man, all told in the quiet moments of the film. Adele is an unusual character, who has been through several traumatic events in her life, and begins to find herself again in this unexpected situation, as she allows herself to be subtlety seduced by this man. Henry begins to find a role model in Frank, a man who sees a need in Henry, and begins trying to make up for lost time and past mistakes.
This is a departure for the director but a positive step forward that will only allow him to get better. While it may not be quite as well-received as his past hits Juno or Up in the Air, as it struggles to develop the supporting characters and the world surrounding these three, it’s a fine piece that really puts Reitman outside of his comfort zone. It forces him and his entire crew to push their abilities. His previous films have all been heavily focused on piercing dialogue and deadpan humour but this one is deeply dramatic. He succeeds in being able to get to the root of the psychology behind what makes these characters function the way they do and convey these messages on screen.
Labor Day is a nice addition to Reitman’s body of work. It shows growth in his style and skill as a director. It is a film that makes us question our moral compass and makes us ponder how we would behave if we found ourselves in a similar situation. It is a film of quiet reflection and contains some of most nuanced acting performances the year.