Several years ago, I started off my TIFF schedule with a film called THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. Ever since then, I’ve always kept a keen eye on the films that Jason Reitman brings to TIFF since they have all so far been very much “up my alley”…
…until this year.
LABOR DAY is based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard. It is about an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) who hides out with a single mother named Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) on Labor Day weekend, 1987. As the weekend goes along, the con builds a bond with both mother and son.
Of Reitman’s five films, this is the one that feels the least like his body of work. I’m not just talking about script – though that doesn’t entirely match either – I’m talking about look, pace, and tone. The film LABOR DAY reminds me of most is another Kate Winslet film, LITTLE CHILDREN. Yet, for as much as I do love LITTLE CHILDREN, LABOR DAY can’t seem to match up with its tension or its weight. It has the look and the feel, but that’s where the comparison ends.
Perhaps it’s because this is Reitman’s first film that doesn’t come with comedic flourishes that leaves me thrown off. There are a great deal of handsome moments, including the greatest pie-making scene this side of WAITRESS. Likewise, Reitman is able to get some great things out of Josh Brolin. Still, I didn’t fall for LABOR DAY all that hard. It has some wit, and some romance, but feels like it needs a bit more polish.
What’s undeniable about the film is the relationship between the three main actors. Not only do we sense the strained but loving relationship between mother and son, but also the inquisitive and fostering relationship that the con shares with the boy. Nothing from this de-facto father figure feels forced, which may well be why the Henry is so drawn to Frank. Brolin plays him as someone who looks to earn his keep, and who has learned a thing or two. Heck, wipe out his prison record and the man could be father-of-the-year.
It’s these sorts of character moments that will stick with me when I think back on LABOR DAY – glimpses of this relationship and the way it becomes a lifeboat for two people adrift – more than its muted nature. I’m left to wonder if this is the beginning of something new for Jason Reitman, the outset of a new tone in his filmmaking perhaps with less emphasis on laughter.
If that’s the case, LABOR DAY may eventually play better in context. For now though, the film feels like it’s missing a little bit of lift – the sort of lift that I expect a director like Jason Reitman to bring to the table.