You have might have noticed that there has been a serious dearth of movies about small-town American life these days.
By Noah Gittell
You have might have noticed that there has been a serious dearth of movies about small-town American life these days. Last year’s “Nebraska” notwithstanding, Hollywood just doesn’t seem interested in telling stories about flyover country anymore. It might be a simple case of economics; with the profit margin on studio movies thinner than ever, producers have decided to simply go where the audiences are, and that means more films centered around urban life and fewer on the small towns that are slowly disappearing from the American landscape.
Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” gets around this problem by setting its story of romance between a depressed single mother and a surprisingly gentle escaped convict in the past. The story takes place in a small Massachusetts town in 1987, not the distant past but long enough ago to represent that bygone era when children could still wander around town on their own on a late summer afternoon. The child in question is Henry (Gattlin Griffith), the son and sole companion of Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressed and lonely single mother. Having lost her husband (Clark Gregg) to his secretary years earlier, Adele mostly hides from the prying eyes of her neighbors in her run-down home, only leaving the house to run errands with Henry. It’s on one of these trips that the two cross paths with Frank (Josh Brolin), a handsome escaped convict who persuades them to let him rest at their house for the night while the police are scouring the neighborhood for him.
One night turns into several, and Frank quickly fills the void in their family – both as lover to Adele and father to Henry – that has dominated them since the divorce. The film’s gripping second half finds this new family trying to turn its long weekend together into a lifetime. Like its characters, “Labor Day” reveals its tender heart to us openly and without much fear.
The result is a deeply affecting, if somewhat predictable romantic drama, yet critics seem to have dismissed it, and “Labor Day” seems destined to be forgotten. This is a shame because it is clearly not designed for film critics. It is not for those who live in urban settings and either don’t know or have forgotten their connection to the land. The film’s infamous pie-making scene – in which Frank shows Adele and Henry how to turn a basket of overripe peaches into something beautiful and sustaining – has been derided by critics as laughably sensuous, but those who have lived in the country will understand how vital baking a pie with homegrown peaches can be to a family.
“Labor Day” is also not for those who place a high value on cleverness and fire off pithy, sarcastic comments in 140 characters or less. Rather, it is an earnest, guileless story of love and loss that marks a significant and welcome departure for writer/director Jason Reitman, whose reputation is as something of a chronicler of irony. There was his directorial debut, “Thank You for Smoking,” a wicked satire of tobacco lobbyists; the Oscar-nominated “Juno,” a comedy about a pregnant teen that came with its own hipster lexicon; then two films — “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” – about good-looking, successful people who never bothered to grow up.
There is a running theme here: Reitman’s lead characters use the constructs of language to hide their vulnerabilities. From the spiritually-empty motivational speeches of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in “Up in the Air” to the cheesy high school romance novels from which Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) has made her millions in “Young Adult,” his protagonists emerge from the shackles of their own words to satisfy the needs of the heart.
“Labor Day” starts where these films leave off, leaving the artifice of language almost completely behind in favor of raw emotion. Adele, Frank, and Henry spend much of the film in silence. Instead, their physical actions – like that pie-making — bond them together and create a family. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why critics have had trouble with the film: Its earnestness is almost startling. Our minds – all of ours but especially those of professional critics — have been trained for irony and detachment, which “Labor Day” inherently rejects. We shouldn’t overlook its flaws – it is not particularly original and the characters could use some fleshing out – but the film means what it says, and that’s enough.
My Rating: See it in the Theater