TIFF 2013: ‘Labor Day’ gracefully balances danger and tenderness

Labor Day
Labor Day
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
USA, 2013

Labor Day is far darker and perilous than writer/director Jason Reitman’s previous fare. Illness, broken hearts, and tragedy take center stage. Characters are not coddled and nothing feels ironic. Judging from this outing, drama may suit Reitman better than the snappy, sardonic exchanges we’ve gotten used to from him. Kate Winslet plays Adele, a woman long ago drained of love for the world, raising a son that wants to believe that a pure, transformative and truly supportive love exists for his mother. Into their lives enters Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who takes them hostage and back to their home to wait out the heat from the cops. Brought together by circumstance, what develops between the three of them is something surprising, rich, and strange.

This is a nightmare scenario that seems like it could spiral out of control at any moment, with Adele’s neighbors and small town on high alert. The film manages not to be sickly sweet with the obvious compassion it has for all of its characters. It instead treats them with the dignity of careful explanations and without being emotionally manipulative. We get to know why they are broken and seek repair through dangerous channels. Brolin and Winslet fill silence with understated glances and gestures that suggest much more than dialogue ever could. Where Reitman’s films are usually dense with nervous chatter, this effort remains steadfastly hushed. Winslet’s demeanor is skillfully subtle, soft, and frail. Brolin vacillates from reserved menacing to tenderly caring for his captives. He excellently depicts a man finally free to do as he pleases. Frank’s intentions are unpredictable and largely unspoken, so there is great reason for this family to fear the worst from him. At the same time, his masculine energy is delightfully peculiar as he does traditional handyman jobs around the house as well as conducting thorough baking lessons. The preparation of food factors into the story as a comforting, relaxing, and more than slightly sensual way of releasing tension during confinement. 

If there’s a weak link in the movie it’s that Adele’s son seems ambivalent to the distressing situation they’re in from the very start. Young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is most effective when he finally breaks down. He’s an astute boy well aware of the fact that his mom is a woman who has desires to be appreciated and taken care of in a loving way that his father couldn’t accomplish. He’s trying to figure life out but he innately knows that his mother doesn’t do well on her own and that one needs affection to overcome the worst of life’s surprises. Adele is a dedicated mother and strong woman but she isn’t resilient enough to take the harshness of reality head-on. Blending the protectiveness she has for her son with the apprehension she has for simple daily interaction with people makes for a dynamic tug-of-war given the crisis they’re in. Most of the time Henry serves as a narrative device off of which we’re able to interpret his mother’s actions. This is a rare story about a mother and son in which we’re more concerned with the mother’s spiritual health than we are for her offspring’s development.

Even though Frank is something of an enigma for majority of Labor Day, it’s clear that he and Adele share the fact that they’ve been cloistered away from society. Distanced from others, they’ve frozen themselves in time, trying to keep at bay memories of loves that didn’t last. It’s palpable that the family falls into this situation out of fear but also kindness. Frank’s loneliness and desperation somehow come to feel inexpressibly at home with them. Cloaked in mystery, jeopardy, and a rough-around-the-edges romanticism, Labor Day is emotionally satisfying without ever venturing into the territory of an overwrought melodrama. 

– Lane Scarberry

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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