I can’t remember the last time I saw a romantic drama as odd and melancholy as this. I always enjoy watching Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, and I’ve been a great admirer of Jason Reitman’s work as writer and director (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air). But Labor Day, which he adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel, is a curiously unsatisfying movie.
The story is told through the eyes of an impressionable 13-year-old boy (Gattlin Griffith), whose father has walked out and remarried, leaving him to contend with a mother (Winslet) who is emotionally fragile and barely able to leave the house. The story takes place in a quiet New Hampshire town in 1987, where the peaceful environment is shaken by the news of a prison break. The escapee (Brolin), a convicted murderer, holes up with Winslet and her son and, to their surprise, turns out to be a compassionate fellow who wins both of them over—for very different reasons.
The film is beautifully designed and shot, perfectly evoking a small-town setting in the period just before cell phones and the Internet changed the American way of life. Winslet is completely believable as a woman who can no longer face even the simplest tasks, for reasons that are revealed well into the narrative. Brolin brings both warmth and effortless authority to his character, an almost impossibly perfect male figure, equally capable of teaching a boy how to throw a baseball and demonstrating how to bake a flawless peach pie.
Reitman effectively builds tension as the narrative unfolds over a handful of days at the end of summer. But as we learn the unfortunate backstories of the adult characters (including the boy’s father, played by Clark Gregg) the film begins to sink under its own weight. The details that are revealed in the final portion of the film add a somber, sorrowful layer to an already-delicate tale.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the takeaway is from Labor Day: life isn’t fair? People suffer for unexpected and unexplained reasons? A boy shouldn’t be forced to grow up with only one parent? A real man ought to know how to change a tire? A film as well-acted and crafted as this shouldn’t leave me wondering why I just spent two hours watching it.