Labor Day is like any worthy poem: However you feel about it, you’ll feel something. The romantic drama, based on a same-title novel by Joyce Maynard and directed by Jason Reitman, is the kind of film that leaves your heart tingling, your head steaming, and your ears echoing. Like poetry, it awakens all senses to taste, touch, and smell the tiniest details, from the sour stench of sweat stains to the overripe sweetness of yellow peaches.
It’s 1987, and a depressed single mother, Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet), lives with her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in a quaint suburban house in New Hampshire. Ever since multiple miscarriages and her husband’s abandonment, Adele shuts herself up at home, leaving Henry to fill the (limited) roles of a husband. One pre-Labor Day week, while making a rare shopping trip, they meet an injured escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who bullies his way into their hospitality. Over the next five days, Frank performs the man-of-the-house roles Henry can’t: changing the car engine oil, unclogging the roof gutters, making chili con carne from scratch, teaching Henry baseball—and winning Adele’s heart.
By a different cast, the movie might have become a flopping parody of Stockholm Syndrome-meets-Nicholas Sparks. Yet somehow, Labor Day works. It’s not just the actors’ sensitive, solid performances. There’s something about the way tangible sounds and visuals roll with implicit textures and smells—the low background hum of the portable fan, the dewy film of perspiration on the skin, the way the peach juices drip and the cold butter cuts with flour as Frank demonstrates how to make peach pie—that makes a preposterous situation feel credible.
Reitman, best known for directing light-handed, humorous movies Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, and Juno, keeps Labor Day surprisingly somber and prim. Anything above PG-13 is kept behind closed doors and low whispers. A comic line or two wouldn’t have hurt, though.
Love it, hate it. However way you slice it, you’ll leave with a craving for Joyce Maynard’s home-baked peach pie.