Film review: LABOR DAY, from Built For Speed

Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day may be a clichéd story of a prisoner on the run finding love with the woman he has taken hostage but a quality cast featuring Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet and young Gattlin Griffith transform this familiar tale into an affecting human drama.

Set in 1987, the film is largely seen through the eyes of 13 year old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who lives with his mentally troubled Mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in a dilapidated house in small-town New Hampshire.  Reluctantly having to fulfil the man of the house role since his parents’ divorce several years earlier, Henry longs for a father figure.  One arrives unexpectedly in the form of escaped convict and murderer Frank (Josh Brolin) who insists on hiding out in their home.  At first intimidating, Frank soon reveals a compassionate side and becomes a surrogate Father for Henry and lover for Adele. This unusual ersatz family is constantly under threat, though, from prowling police and suspicious neighbours.

Director Jason Reitman fashions an intense atmospheric American gothic world here that pulses with feverish emotion in a way that recalls the films of Terrence Malick.  Cryptic flashbacks that depict both Frank and Adele’s tragic histories are particularly redolent of Malick’s dream-like style.  The film’s sultry mood is also underscored by a brooding soundtrack from Rolf Kent and well-chosen songs from the likes of Arlo Guthrie.

The film at times stretches credibility with Frank proving astonishingly helpful around the house as he cooks, cleans, irons clothes, fixes car, repairs squeaky doors and generally makes men in the audience feel inadequate. He even engages Henry and Adele in a weird and suggestive bonding exercise where they all make a pie together.  The film also threatens to transform into a Notebook-style romance at times but thankfully Reitman  prevents the story from becoming too syrupy.

Despite being unusually domesticated, Josh Brolin still manages to invest escapee Frank with a wonderful Stanley Kowalski-like intensity.  Even though he proves to be a noble and even romantic figure there’s always something slightly threatening about him. 

The depiction of women in this film, though, is questionable.  They tend to be either, philandering harpies, heartless harridans who slap disabled kids or, in Adele’s case, neurotic and virtually helpless.  Despite this unfortunate stereotyping, Kate Winslet still manages to convey believable desperation for a better life and moving compassion for Frank and her son.

As much as a prisoner on the lam story, this is a teen rites of passage film as it’s narrated by Henry’s older self (voiced by Toby Maguire) and focuses on his burgeoning adolescent desires, particularly his attraction to feisty, streetwise new girl in town Eleanor (Brighid Fleming).  Gattlin Griffith delivers a memorable performance as Henry and joins The Way Way Back’s Liam James and The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman as a moving and likeable embodiment of confused anxious male youth. Gattlin Griffith imbues Henry with an appealing innocence and decency as well as an impressively quick mind when nosey cop Officer Treadwell (James Van Der Beek) starts asking difficult questions.

Audiences will feel like they have seen much of this film before but fine performances from all the cast and a striking visual style make this worth a look.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Jason Reitman.

Release date: 6th Feb 2014

Running time: 111 mins.

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