Monday, December 30, 2013

Labor Day

Writer-director Jason Reitman's "Labor Day" is like a short story you can't put down, with an immediacy born of a deeply felt sense of time and place and a leanness and economy of storytelling.

It's told from the point of view of Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), a New Hampshire boy of thirteen, who lives with his divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). Adele's hands have begun to shake at times, and her agoraphobia has gotten progressively worse; she now leaves the house just once a month, to buy essentials with Henry at the Pricemart. It is on one such mission, just before Labor Day weekend 1987, that a man with blood visible underneath his white T-shirt importunes Adele for a ride home; when she demurs, he holds Henry's neck and says, softly but insistently, "Frankly, this has to happen."

The man is Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who has just escaped from a nearby penitentiary, where he'd been sentenced to eighteen years for the murder of his wife. (In the second-floor prison hospital, he told the guard he'd jump out the window if he walked away. The guard went on a cigarette break, and Frank was gone: "Nothing fools 'em like the truth.") Frank assures Adele and Henry that he means them no harm, that he's never intentionally hurt anyone in his life: "There's a lot more to the story than you'll read in that paper." He ties them up only so they'll be able truthfully to tell the cops he did, and promises to leave when the first train whistles in the morning.

This being a holiday weekend, though, the trains aren't running on schedule, and Frank stays. Adele, who had foreclosed the possibility of feelings for another man, is drawn to Frank's quiet strength and tenderness. Henry slowly warms to the thought of a real new family of sorts. They bake a peach pie together in a vividly sensory scene. Frank teaches Henry how to throw a baseball, and they share a game of catch. On errands into town and his weekly Sunday night dinner with his dad's new family (and when neighbors pop by bearing gifts or needing favors), Henry tries to avoid letting on that he and Adele are harboring the fugitive everyone's looking for.

I found the film - a study of the sometimes disparate and sometimes synchronized motivations of these three main characters - captivating. Henry is the soul of "Labor Day," and in Griffith Reitman has found the soulful eyes, hyperaware alertness and vigilant protectiveness he requires. (Clint Eastwood must have seen the same things when he cast Griffith in the title role in "Changeling.") This is one of the best performances of the year by a child actor. Winslet - who can be mannered and actorly - restrains herself here, finding Adele's still-flickering need for human connection among the emotional carnage life has wrought upon her. (A flashback to the event that effectively ended Adele's marriage brought tears to my eyes.) Brolin, in a part that could easily go wrong, is convincing as the rock-solid man who may, out of nowhere, complete Adele and Henry.

The spell breaks somewhat after the curtain falls. It's true that there's more to the story of Frank's crime, but it's also true that there's not. (We see in flashbacks how and why he did what he did, but he definitely needed to be put away.) The new girl in town - a possible first girlfriend for Henry - struck me as a bit too fast-talking and worldly-wise for her age. But perhaps not; perhaps that's just how she seemed to Henry then (there is occasional voice-over narration by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry). Regardless, there's enough good stuff in "Labor Day" that I was enthralled throughout.

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