Zimbio Review - There's More to 'Labor Day' Than Silly Melodrama

Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet in Labor Day. (Paramount)
Long story short: Melodrama made by a talented director is still melodrama, but there's something deeper to Labor Day.

Labor Day will remind you of: A Perfect World, Revolutionary Road, Mildred Pierce, The Bridges of Madison County, All That Heaven Allows, Blue Velvet, American Beauty

Review: Labor Day marks a departure for
writer/director Jason Reitman whose previous four films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) used glibness to investigate real issues. His new film isn't glib, it barely cracks a smile. Based on Joyce Maynard's novel, Labor Day is a small-town melodrama with an edge. Like Todd Haynes' work, what we see onscreen and hear in the script is elevated by an assured directorial style. It's almost Lynchian in a way. Deep in the New Hampshire suburbs, scandal unfolds, but it's very hard to see.

Set during Labor Day weekend in 1987, the story is seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith). He lives with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), but visits his dad (Clark Gregg) and his new stepmother once a week. Henry is a quiet, unassuming kid whom Griffith plays with a vulnerability that's wholesome, but thoroughly trouble-free. The boy's behavior reflects his mother. Adele, beaten up by "losing love itself" as well as a related medical issue, has become a recluse. Her hands shake when she goes out in public. Henry, hopeless to help her, does his level best to be a good son.

Their quiet life is upended strangely. On a rare trip to a local store, Henry is approached by a dirty man with blood on his shirt. He says his name's Frank (Josh Brolin) and he needs a lift. Adele and Henry balk at first, but eventually take him home. They learn the soft-spoken, goateed Frank is an escaped convict who wants to stay until night falls. 

Here's where Labor Day surprises. Frank ties up Adele "for appearances' sake" and commences house duties. He assumes the father role, cooking, cleaning, replacing filters, and fixing things. He ends up staying and it's not long before he and Adele have grown close. Henry, confused by what he thought was illegal (harboring a fugitive), having a new father figure, and seeing his mother come back to life, walks through the rest of the film in a strange daze. He likes the new arrangement, but he's also worried he's about to be left behind.

Reitman paces Labor Day with several flashback sequences that inform Brolin and Winslet's characters. Frank was in jail for murder and we see his previous life with a beautiful young girl. She could've been Adele, beautiful herself and full of romance at a young age. She loved dancing most, as evidenced by the steps stenciled on her kitchen floor. Flashbacks are a shorthand, but the character development works. When Frank and Adele fall for each other, it doesn't seem forced. These are two damaged people who can't leave the house. The Labor Day weekend then becomes something much different and more meaningful.

On the surface, the romance between Frank and Adele is movie of the week-type melodrama. They stare longingly at one another (the word "longing" is used twice in the first half hour to describe Adele) and much of it is overdone. "We can't give you a family." Adele tells the convict. "You already have." He replies. The writing is simple in a Nicholas Sparks way. Reitman finds a balance, however. Helped by Brolin and Winslet, who both give strong performances, the director uses the camera to help the cause.

The visual themes of Labor Day are accessible. Cooking and eating are sensual acts. Frank feeds Adele when she's tied up, an intimate scene. They make a peach pie and the camera watches their hands mixing the sugar and fruit together, like Swayze and Moore on the potter's wheel in Ghost. The sexuality of the film works on two levels. Frank and Adele are obviously falling in love, but Henry is also having a sexual awakening. He's of a certain age and is seeing his mother as a sexual being for the first time. It helps him approach a new girl in town who piques his interest.

America is another theme throughout. Frank endears himself to his new makeshift family by doing those classic family functions: cooking pies, housework, and teaching the kid to play baseball. The day to day activities are American traditions. But they mask a deeper truth. As in American Beauty, a two-story house and picket fence act as a marvelous facade for deep dysfunction. The truth is there, but not exactly visible from the street.

Labor Day is also helped along by a tonal score, by Rolfe Kent, that's ominously present throughout. The music doesn't sweep us away or tell us how to feel, but it's always there pushing the story along. Reitman is too. This movie doesn't have the sharp writing or humor of his previous work, but it's just as well-directed. The script is far from perfect and the story is about as believable as a fairy tale, but that seems to be the point. Reitman's made his own version of America, one as dreamy and dramatic as the country itself.

Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.