To the best of our knowledge, director Jason Reitman hasn’t ever spent a long bank holiday weekend in the Midlands. Having done so many times ourselves, it’s eerie just how he manages to capture the monotony of doing so in his latest film, Labor Day (an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s book, to which he’s written the screenplay too). Coming on the heels of the woefully underappreciated Young Adult (both Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt could, with some justification, lodge appeals with Oscar voters), it’s another dark drama, albeit a bit more of a contained one.
The set up sees Kate Winslet starring as Adele, a woman living with her 13-year old son, Henry. Adele is in a bad place, a single mom battling with depression, and ahead of the five-day Labor Day holiday weekend, Josh Brolin’s escaped convict Frank comes into their lives. More to the point, he ends up hiding out in their house over the weekend. To the surprise of all concerned, he soon finds himself bonding with both Adele and Henry. Neither of whom – and this is the leap of faith the film requires you to take – raise the alarm as soon as they can.
Reitman’s film takes its time to explore the relationship between the trio, and – you can probably spot the double-edged sword coming here – he gets across the long monotony of a holiday weekend without much to do particularly well. As he captions the changing days, there comes a point where you realise the film is only up to Sunday, and you realise that the bloody holiday goes on for a couple of days yet.
The upside to this shouldn’t be understated though, as it allows Reitman to slowly develop the relationship between Frank, Adele and Henry. Furthermore, he takes time out of the house to also show the connection that Henry makes with a slightly older girl by the name of Eleanor (played well by Brighid Fleming). And where Reitman’s long, dusty build-up finally pays dividends is in the final stretch of the film.
To that point though, Labor Day has been a testing piece of work, anchored by two excellent performances from Winslet and Brolin, but perhaps too effectively getting across how empty a long holiday weekend can be. Still, Reitman gradually peels back the history of his two lead characters, and keeps in mind the constant threat that Henry may go to live with his father – played by Clark Gregg – instead. Cameos too are contributed by James Van Der Beek and Tobey Maguire. Yet the middle portion of Labor Day asks for an awful lot of patience, which it only patchily rewards.
It’s not that the pace of the film in itself is a problem: the slow, delicate nature of it is an asset. It’s that there doesn’t really feel that there’s enough in it to warrant 111 minutes. That said, at least one moment near the end had tears streaming down our face. And that’s the conundrum here. Just as you’re thinking about giving up on Labor Day, it hits you, and hits you hard.
It’s arguably Reitman’s least accessible film since his breakthrough with Thank You For Smoking, but it’s not without merits. It’s still a film that you feel few other directors would even think about making. Frustratingly, it just doesn’t quite hold you as it should for good parts of its running time.
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