“Labor Day” boasts a strong cast, a poignant message about family and several powerful moments, all of which suggest that it is a good movie. But “Labor Day” also requires one suspension of belief too many, which undermines a compelling-if-flawed film.
Directed by Jason Reitman (“Juno”) and adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, “Labor Day” is told through the eyes of Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a boy just on the cusp of the seventh grade, puberty and all of the horrors that go with it. He lives with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), who has become a shut-in over the years for reasons that are not made immediately clear. His father (Clark Gregg) left years earlier to start a new family with his secretary and is just enough of a presence in Henry’s life to be annoying.
One day Henry and his mother make a rare run to the grocery store and encounter a rough-looking man named Frank (Josh Brolin), who uses his threatening powers of persuasion to hitch a ride back to the family homestead. Turns out Henry is an escaped convict with a mysterious background of his own.
This sets the stage for an emotionally loaded weekend and a singularly bizarre tale of home invasion, as Frank warms up to his captives by providing the father figure and husband that Henry and his mother have been missing in their lives. As he fixes things around the house and teaches Henry to throw a baseball, Brolin manages to balance enough warmth against his character’s menace to keep you from standing up and walking out of the film in frustration. But as the family teams up to make a peach pie together roughly 24 hours post-abduction, it’s hard to completely buy in.
As all of this is happening, Henry is dealing with the reality of becoming a young man. He thinks about the girls at school and weighs his memories against what he sees happening between Frank and his mother. Puberty is tough enough when your mother isn’t falling for an escaped convict, but somehow Henry keeps his head together. As the narrative moves forward, flashbacks from Frank’s past gradually reveal the circumstances that led to his incarceration, and blend with a narrative that doesn’t stay quite so linear as the twists and turns of the manhunt threaten everyone’s strange, idyllic situation.
In some ways, the plot echoes last year’s “Mud,” another compelling story about a youngster who befriends a convict on the run. But where that film felt tighter and more believable, the rapid emotional and narrative arc of “Labor Day” keeps it from being as good as it could be. Which is too bad, because a good final product doesn’t feel too far out of reach.
Still, for some a stretch in believability may not matter next to the film’s powerful message about the importance of father figures and the challenges of motherhood. (When finally revealed, Adele’s reasons for cutting herself off to the world provide some truly heartbreaking moments that Winslet nails to perfection.) But even that message gets muddled against “Labor Day’s” contemporary disregard for sexual restraint in relationships. Like “Juno,” “Labor Day” has a way of championing traditional values and ignoring them at the same time.
“Labor Day” is rated PG-13 for some sexual content, flashes of violence and some mild language.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.