If I'd have known that the poster to Jason Reitman's Labor Day, an adaptation of the Joyce Manard novel, hadn't made it online yet at this writing, I'd have snapped a picture of it. It's a beauty for its rarity. How many actual film stills are used for movie posters these days? It's usually either iconic floating heads or powerful star bodies. If not that then boring vertical / horizontal grids of star faces, or a mishmash collage.
Here's the freeze frame in question, that's only been slightly modified for the poster image...
And that film still, the first image released, is truth in advertising. What's more -- and only faithful TFE readers will truly appreciate this -- it's the image that stopped me in my tracks during the movie and made me think "That's my choice for 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' though I promise I don't play that game with every movie I watch.
The image is the story in a nutshell...
To your right is a boy Henry (very well played by Gattlin Griffith) at the doorway, looking out nervously into the world, but still very much tied to his mother's home. To your left (the non-distinct figure behind the glass), is the outside world, a hazy unfocused threat to this insular makeshift family. In the middle is the couple at the heart of the movie's odd drama, an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who is hiding out with the boy and his mother (Kate Winslet) over Labor Day weekend while the authorities search for him. She's being forcefully held here to hide her from the unexpected visitor but she looks to be okay with it, as if this is more of a lovers embrace.
That's the kick-off tangle of the movie's drama. Will this mother and son who obviously keep to themselves ever engage with the outside world? And how will this new and possibly violent man affect their lives?
Kate Winslet clues you in to Adele's agoraphobia immediately with a well defined physicality for her character, as if certain motions, like driving a car, have no kinetic memory to help her perform them. She also ably charts Adele's slow-broil shifting feelings for her captor in the movie's Stockhold Syndrome Hallmark Romance. It's great to see her dig into a good role again but the movie (and Winslet to a much lesser degree) forget to underline the two key things that unlock her odd character: her tactless eccentricities and her never-dimmed sexuality. Both of these character elements make the character's action decipherable in the novel and also amplify her boy's various maturing dilemmas. To be fair there are a few perfunctory attempts to fill in those character gaps with flashback or voiceover (why are people always hiring Tobey Maguire as narrator? Whyyyyyy?) but no amount of narration can ever beat a talented actress working character beats in a scene for resonant truth. Josh Brolin is also good as Frank but though he sells his character's unlikely mix of threat and softie, and the casting of his young self (Tom Lipinski) is stupendous the focus is always on the boy and his coming of age. But like Adele, the movie skimps on Frank's story... which is a problem though I can't say why for spoilers.
Jason Reitman is a solid glossy mainstream filmmaker and in many ways Labor Day looks great and moves enthusiastically through its beats like Adele when she's dancing. His first four movies (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) show an obvious and highly welcome urge to tell us stories about ordinary (if heightened) people dealing with the very ordinary drama of how to live in the world, how to face the truth about yourself (or refuse to), and how to reconcile your career with your character. What throws me off of Labor Day, in respect to the rest of his work, is not that only one of these is addressed, but how hard the story is to connect to. The specifics of Joyce Manard's bestselling novel are SO specific that they risk feeling entirely foreign... unless you happen to be a lonely housewife with a yearning for misunderstood convicts? Despite a handful of terrific scenes, most of the movie is a little like staring at beautiful people playing ordinary cagey ones without the benefit of subtitles. There's far too much focus on the coming of age of Henry to sell the Adele/Frank romance which is where the story's weird energy and heart resides. As for the coming of age narrative... it's too bland to make this Labor Day weekend memorable on its own. C+
Podcast a group discussion of TIFF 13: Oscar buzz, our favorite films, and more
Ambition & Self Sabotage on Gravity and Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her
Mano-a-Mano Hallucinations Norway's Pioneer & Jake Gyllenhaal² in Enemy
Quickies Honeymoon, Young & Beautiful, Belle
Jessica Chastain at the Eleanor Rigby Premiere
August Osage County reactions Plus Best Picture Nonsense
Rush Ron Howard's crowd pleaser
The Past from Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi & Cannes Best Actress Berenice Bejo
Queer Double Feature: Tom at the Farm and Stranger by the Lake
Boogie Nights Live Read with Jason Reitman and Friends
First 3 Screenings: Child's Pose, Unbeatable and Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness
TIFF Arrival: Touchdown in Toronto. Two unsightly Oscars