Earlier this year, Deadspin writer Barry Petchesky reported on the uplifting story of Braves catcher Evan Gattis, and said, “It probably won’t last. It’s too beautiful.” That line has stuck with me all summer. Beautiful things are temporary, but pain seemingly lasts forever. The worst memories are at best an ugly scar and usually an open wound that stings every time you touch it or even look at it. Jason Reitman’s earnest, moving drama Labor Day examines the desperation to heal and how fate can conspire to tear away what’s beautiful. It’s a snapshot of total happiness with storm clouds on the horizon. Labor Day is Reitman’s most mature film to date, and it powerfully shows how the most modest of hopes can be the ones that almost break us completely.
The story is set on Labor Day, 1987. Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is a young teenager who has become the man of the house, and looks after his deeply depressed mother Adele (Kate Winslet) after his father (Clark Gregg) left them to go have a new family with his secretary. Henry tries to take care of his mother as best he can, but he knows there are limits to what he can provide. During a trip to the supermarket, Henry and Adele encounter Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who forces the mother and son to take him in so he can lay low. However, the relationship between captor and hostages quickly transforms as the kindly Frank takes on the role of the father and husband Henry and Adele have been missing. However, flashes of Frank’s past and hints of Adele’s trauma swirl around their idyll, and the cops’ pursuit threatens to shatter the joy this makeshift family has found.
Labor Day is as fragile as its characters’ happiness. Reitman’s total assuredness stops the film from being a painfully corny tale, and he always reminds us that the spell could be broken at any moment. Frank may be a good man and an incredibly tender kidnapper, but he’s bleeding from his waist because he jumped out a window escaping from prison. Every time we see that wound, we’re reminded that this isn’t some nice guy from the supermarket. He is a criminal, and we don’t know what landed him in jail. As warm and friendly as he behaves towards Adele and Henry, Frank could easily be a coiled cobra who will strike at the possibility of capture. There’s a dark crime in his past, and now he’s crossed paths with a deeply troubled woman and her protective son.
But just as Frank can provide a love that’s been missing from Henry and Adele’s life, they offer the fugitive the possibility of redemption. Adele and Frank are suffering from emotional trauma. When Reitman reveals the source of their pain, it’s absolutely devastating and serves to highlight how important these characters have become to each other. This isn’t a matter of fast-acting Stockholm Syndrome. This is getting a second chance at what you always wanted, and clinging on to it for dear life because life without it is desolate and hollow.
The execution of these themes and emotions is the difference between mawkishness and earnestness, and Labor Day is always on the side of the latter. The sun shines through in Eric Steelberg’s gorgeous cinematography, and drenches the setting in a faded, golden light. The characters drip with sweat in the late summer heat. It’s idyllic, but it’s not euphoric. Rolfe Kent’s thoughtful score can lull us into near-complacency before an ear-piercing note and a heartbeat base remind us that the wolves are at the door, and that this brief, perfect life Frank, Adele, and Henry have built can be snatched away in a second. And as always, Brolin and Winslet bring the high-caliber performances we’ve come to expect from the acclaimed actors. Young Gattlin Griffith provides a tremendous assist by not trying to stand out, but wisely understanding the value of supporting work. Through the culmination of this collaboration, Reitman shows that his range cannot be underestimated, and he has delivered a drama as impressive as his celebrated comedies.
Within the framing device of an older Henry (Tobey Maguire) narrating the events of that fateful Labor Day weekend, we’re watching memories within memories. When the story brings us into the present near the end, and forces a conclusion that doesn’t feel natural, the narrative loses the heartfelt honesty of the past. Labor Day lives in memories and moments. Henry remembers when Frank came into his life; Frank and Adele remember their separate traumas that plunged them into despair. They all remember a hope that perhaps their painful pasts wouldn’t dictate a lonely future. These are memories trapped in amber, and the memories are all that’s left. The precious, fragile moments—moments of simple bliss like playing catch or making a peach pie—can’t last. They’re too beautiful.
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