At first glance, the coming-of-age story that is Labor Day seems like a weepy exercise in two broken people falling in love and second chances. Told from the perspective of 12-year-old Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith), this film is really about a little boy going into adulthood and understanding his … manly urges.
The actual story of Labor Day (written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard) is about a convict, Frank (Josh Brolin) meeting and falling in love with divorcee and mother of Henry, Adele (Kate Winslet). Frank has just escaped from a hospital where he was being treated for appendicitis.
Injuring himself during his escape, Frank happens upon Henry and Adele and gently forces them to take him in, until his injury can heal. That fateful 1987 weekend (Labor Day weekend) changes the lives of these three individuals forever.
Without spoiling the ending — for those of you who have not read the book – this film seems incomplete. As adults, we the audience, know what Henry’s nightly yearnings mean. We know that he’s at that age to understand why Frank’s presence in Adele’s world means a lot to her and him.
However, Reitman, trying to find his footing in territory that includes a young boy hitting puberty and a mother with sexual needs, manages to up the ick factor, while not giving his audience enough to fully understand Adele.
We know that there have been extenuating circumstances that caused Adele to be a recluse. She depends so much on her son that he creates a coupon book for her called “Husband for a Day.”
But, we’re not getting the full grasp of Adele’s plight and how she is really dealing with things. Granted, this story is told solely through the eyes and ears of Henry. There’s just that missing piece of Adele’s perspective that would have closed the tiny gap between Henry’s child-like understanding and Adele’s life.
Reitman does the best he can with the material with which he is working. He does capture the time and the lifestyle of small-town living. From the grocery clerk who grills Henry about the man’s razor he’s ringing up for Henry to purchase, to the bank clerk grilling Adele about taking out her own money from the bank. No one knows how to mind their own business and they prey on the people who are too nice to tell people to say butt out.
That said, Winslet gives her American accent her all and really brings the character to life from the limp, greasy hair and face to her need to stare off into space for long periods of time. Adele, trapped inside her mind and afraid of being out in the world, is a broken person. The good news is that the audience gets to see Adele come out of her shell and remember what it was like to be young and in love. The same goes for Frank.
Brolin helps the audience forget his Oldboy character, Joe. In a test of strength and will, Joe would cream Frank. But, in a test of being a character to root for who is afforded an opportunity at a second chance, Frank wins – hands down. Frank’s crime may have been murder but, at least, he doesn’t have an inappropriate encounter with his child. Frank is just looking for a family of his own. Adele and Henry serve as that family.
Griffith, no stranger to being on the small and large screens, uses his wide eyes to express just how innocent Henry is and how easily he’s goaded into doing things he shouldn’t. That said, Henry and Frank form a bond that is undeniable and makes the ending all the more bittersweet. The good news is Henry does survive to become a normal adult human being.
Other actors of note are James Van Der Beek as Officer Treadwell, Tobey Maguire as adult Henry, and Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fame as Gerald, Adele’s ex-husband.
As a best-selling book, Labor Day succeeds as a coming-of-age story. But, as a film, it leaves something to be desired. Labor Day isn’t just about Henry. It’s about Adele and Frank, too, and the beauty of true love and second chances.