By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 16, 2013 at 2:02PM
It's not the coolest thing to admit in certain circles, but I'm an unrepentant fan of Jason Reitman's work. Though his debut "Thank You For Smoking" was uneven (though a little fun), his three subsequent films have shown him to be a fine director of actors, and to have a real command of tone, and I consider "Juno," "Young Adult," and particularly, "Up In The Air" to be among the best films of their type in recent years (the mainstream-ish comedy-drama—and one only has to look at the many dismal similar films that come round the festival circuit every year to realize how hard it is to pull one of those off). Which is why I was particularly disappointed that "Labor Day" [C-] is such a misfire.
Reitman's fifth film, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, marks something of a left-turn for the writer-director. The story—which sees divorced mother Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) taken hostage over the titular 1987 holiday weekend by escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), only for a relationship to develop between Adele and Frank—is closer to a sort of Sirk-ian melodrama than Reitman's previous work, with a quieter, more lyrical tone, and a more sincere approach.
Unfortunately, it seems that Reitman's skillset isn't particularly suited to this kind of film (our man in Telluride felt the same, see our full review). It's not that "Labor Day" is actively bad—although it brushes against it every so often—it's more that it's sort of baffling. Reitman never keeps much track of the progression of time across the film, with the impression that the few days of the script is stretched over months, which helps to indicate how languid the pacing is. Things seem to unfold because the plot contrives it to be so, rather than in a more organic fashion. And an awkward narration/coda featuring Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry (at least his scenes weren't reshot with Rafe Spall this time...) gives the impression that the major takeaway of the experience is how his character learned to make peach cobbler.
More importantly, though, there isn't all that much passion at play here for the thwarted, unlikely romance that Reitman is going for. It's torn between that and a coming-of-age tale, and the two genres actively work against each other; with Henry being the protagonist, it means that you're never given a way into the heads of Brolin or Winslet's characters. Given the work he's been able to get from actors in the past, the performances too are a little disappointing. Winslet and Brolin are okay, but essentially pulling off more thinly written versions of characters they've played elsewhere, while Griffith is rather bland.
Occasionally, the film does spark into life; the closing stages are impressively tense, suggesting Reitman might be better suited to more genre-inflected territory than straight drama next time he wants to head outside his comfort zone. And the script suddenly wakes up when young actress Brighid Fleming turns up as a sort of love interest for Henry—her feisty presence enlivens the film, and the picture suddenly shifts into the gear of the Reitman of old. But for the most part, this is a definite disappointment.
Much more confident is "The Selfish Giant" [B+], from British director Clio Barnard, who made an impressive debut a couple of years back with drama/documentary hybrid "The Arbor." Here, she's in Ken Loach/Andrea Arnold social realist territory, with a very loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde's tale of the same name. Set in Bradford, Yorkshire, newcomer Conner Chapman gives an astonishing performance as Arbor (presumably a nod to Barnard's pervious film), a troubled kid prone to violent outbursts, and general rebellion. After being excluded permanently from school, he, and best pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas), fall in with scrap-metal dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder), ending up scavenging the countryside for copper wire and the like. Inevitably, it leads to tragic consequences.
The script often feels heavy-handed, and sometimes feels like it's ticking off a sort of kitchen-sink checklist (Arbor's drug-addict brother feels a bit token, if we're being honest). But Barnard infuses the film with a humanity and beauty that ensures it doesn't become unbearably bleak. The world is detailed and lived-in, the performances entirely convincing, and the final half-hour or so is hugely moving and powerful that wracking sobs could be heard in the auditorium as the credits rolled. If "The Arbor" suggested that Barnard was a director of considerable promise, this looks set to put Barnard among the top rank of British filmmakers.
South African noir "Of Good Report" [A-] is, if anything, even more brutal and bleak; its sex and violence saw it briefly banned in its home country. But we'd been tipped off by friends that this was one to keep an eye on, and that turned out to be entirely correct. It's an enormously impressive piece of neo-noir that definitely makes writer/director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka a name to watch going forward. The film stars Mothusi Magano, in a nearly wordless performance, as an introverted former soldier who begins work as an English teacher at a local high school, only to almost immediately begin an affair with an alluring student, Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma).
After some near-misses and a pregnancy, the affair ends, but the teacher has become fixated on the girl, and between his overbearing mother and his dark military past, starts to unravel at the seams. Shot in gorgeous chiaroscuro-packed black-and-white that calls to mind classic Hollywood noir, the film takes a familiar premise and doesn't so much turn it on its head as makes it weirder (there's a number of striking, almost Lynchian dream sequences) and more blood-splattered. It's a tough watch, but nevertheless an entertaining one, and has turned out to be my favorite discovery of the festival. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Qubeka's future work.
Another film that came highly recommended by a colleague, in this case Playlister Jessica Kiang, was "Borgman" [B], a dark Dutch comedy that was well-regarded at Cannes (read Jess' original review from the Croisette here). Bringing to mind a short story by Roald Dahl or Saki, and indebted to Michael Haneke and Greek new wavers like Yorgos Lanthimos, it focuses on the titular drifter, who with his acolytes, ingratiates himself on a well-to-do family like a cuckoo in the nest. And we all know what the cuckoo does eventually.
Despite the obvious comparison points, this is inventive stuff from director Alex van Warmerdam, the story taking increasingly odd turns, some of which pay off, some of which, quite deliberately, don't. It's a fun world to spend time in, and there's a number of gothically memorable images and sequences. But ultimately, it didn't quite pay off as satisfyingly as I might have wanted, feeling a little hollow by the end. I was also a little perturbed by the way it uses the women in the story: while almost everyone falls under Borgman's spell, the women are denied the agency of the men, and exist mostly as sexual objects. If the filmmaker was making a point by painting them that way, it was an oblique one.
Closer to home again was "Love Me Till Monday" [B-], a micro budget British rom-com. Here, we have to declare an interest: the film's lead, Becky, a somewhat aimless 25-year-old graduate who to her her own surprise, ends up in a relationship with her boss, is played by Georgia Maguire, who happens to be a good friend (oversharing fact: I directed her in "Hedda Gabler" at university). I say this only so you can choose to disregard the following if you so choose.
The film itself—a sort of British suburban version of "Frances Ha," thematically at least, is rough around the edges—the tone can veer into broader territory than the film itself, some plot contrivances can jar, and the direction falters occasionally, most notably in a midway montage that seems to be made of offcuts from other scenes, and seems to exist mostly just for padding. But it's also a good deal more charming than most films of its kind from this side of the pond, is often very funny, and features lived-in, likable performances across the board. And while you're free to dismiss this as biased, I'm one of many who thinks Georgia is objectively terrific in the film, carrying the whole thing on her shoulders with charisma and vulnerability. If the film gets wider distribution (and U.K. cinemas could do a lot worse, given the quality of some homegrown fare) we sense that the rest of you will be agreeing with us before too long.