MRR Review: "Labor Day"

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Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: January 31, 2014
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Genre: Drama

Stories that bring a woman who has almost given up on love into the arms of a handsome stranger are one of the most popular romance formulas, and bringing "Labor Day" out at the holidays was a risk. However, the understated performance that Kate Winslet delivers is one of the finest of 2013.

The setting is the 1987 Labor Day weekend, and the story opens when Henry (Gattlin Griffith) convinces his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) to venture out of the house and hit the supermarket. The victim of several unsuccessful pregnancies and abandonment by her husband, Adele has been too swamped with grief and depression even to leave the house. Henry is her one remaining child, and his love for her convinces him that she needs some sort of shock to come back to life. When escaped prisoner Frank (Josh Brolin) approaches Henry, covered in blood and clearly in need of help, Henry does not shy away. Even though she fears that Frank might kill them both, Adele allows him to come home with them.

Frank turns out not to be such a bad guy after all. He opens up about his long sentence for murder (an accident, he claims, that took his wife's life) and his escape. He's so winning that he talks Adele into letting him tie her up, to keep the police from charging her with the crime of harboring a fugitive, should they come by the house. While tied up, Adele can only watch as Frank makes, of all things, chili, which he then feeds her.

The romance between Adele and Frank grows, although it has its bumps along the way. Frank is handy around the house, but Adele has to hide him when the neighbors stop by, or when Henry leaves for visitation time with his dad. Adele and Frank put together an odd plan to run away to Canada, even taking Henry along; at this point, the events start to take place in a hurry, and this brings real suspense to the movie.

Until the point where the couple are talking about making their break, the action is relatively slow. This isn't a problem, though, because director Jason Reitman artfully weaves in a series of flashbacks. Over the course of this first section, the viewer learns how Frank, Adele and Henry came to this point in their lives. The adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) provides the voice-over narration in the film.

In the development of the romance between Frank and Adele, "Labor Day" scores major points by using the power of suggestion rather than having matters devolve into a sex scene. During that first Labor Day weekend, Frank teaches Henry and Adele to make a peach pie, and he plunges their hands down into a large bowl with peaches and juice, so they can stir it together. Watching the hands moving together in the bowl is the closest this film comes to the sensual, but paired with the glances that Frank and Adele give each other in this scene, it is clear that love is growing.

It is the gentleness of this first Labor Day weekend that gives the movie its real power. It isn't the fact that Frank can fix the furnace, show Henry the right way to throw a baseball or fold the laundry that makes him such a source of fascination for both Adele and Henry. After all, in situations involving blended families, it is never just the man and the woman that fall in love. The children fall in love as well, which is what makes breaking those new families so painful. Instead, it is the gentleness that pervades every movement Frank takes in their home that weekend, from tying Adele up to changing the oil in the car. This gentleness is the result of Reitman's touches on the film, and his artful infusion of theme into plot is what has brought him critical success in such past films as "Up in the Air" and "Juno." Even when matters begin to speed up, Reitman's careful guiding hand is evident as these three careen toward a predestined ending that, while happy, is not unrealistically so.

If you are a fan of Kate Winslet, you will walk away from this movie having seen a new side of her acting talent. The somewhat petulant rebel from "Heavenly Creatures," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Titanic" now shows the power that comes from not what is said, but instead appears in glances and movements. Her strong turn in "All the King's Men" showed this promise as well, but her portrayal of Adele shows that she has learned to portray character in many more dimensions.

For those fans of romance movies that simply beg to make the impossible come true, "Labor Day" is a solid entry, and Brolin, Winslet and Griffith all make this a compelling tale, particularly when you start wanting them to succeed. If you can get that sort of engagement out of a movie, then you are fortunate indeed.

Rating: 3 out of 5