Thirteen year old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is heading back to school. Summer is over and it’s time to do some shopping. Henry lives with his mother, Adele (Winslet) in a small New England town. Actually it’s the other way around. Since her husband divorced her and remarried Adele has withdrawn from the world. So much so that she only leaves the house once a month, when she drives Henry to the bank to cash a check then takes him around on a shopping run. Today she managed to actually get out of the car and join Henry as he shops for clothes. A pretty uneventful start for a holiday weekend.
Well intentioned but lacking in credibility, “Labor Day” is a bump in the so-far smooth cinematic road of director Jason Reitman. The director of such Oscar-nominated films as “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” Reitman has adapted Joyce Maynard’s novel into what can best be described as “Nicholas Sparks lite.” The story takes off when Henry is approached in the store by Frank (a never better Brolin), who has just escaped from the nearby prison. Injured, Frank strikes up a conversation with Henry and then “insists” that he and Adele give him a ride. Hoping to hide out until dark, Frank forces Adele to drive to her home, where he will be safe. He ties Adele up and warns Henry of the consequences of telling anyone what’s up. Then he makes dinner. Seriously. Digging through cupboards and the fridge he concocts what can only be described as the world’s best bowl of chilli. As Adele is still bound, he feeds it to her. Somewhere between “open up” and “thank you,” a connection is made. We know that because of the way Adele seductively blows on each spoonful to cool it off. When a neighbor comes by with a bucket of peaches Frank teaches the other two how to make a pie. I’ll assume the sight of all three of them putting their hands in the mixing bowl to squeeze the ripe peaches was supposed to evoke the pottery table scene in “Ghost,” but all I could think of was “is that really sanitary?” Of course, Frank doesn’t leave that night. He must really like pie!
If you can get past the plot (what there is of one) you’ll discover Winslet and Brolin at the top of their game. In scenes with Henry it is obvious that Adele has been hurt terribly by her divorce. She is a romantic and that romance has been taken from her. Which makes her take notice when Frank enters the picture. We’re told that Frank is a murderer but as the film progresses we learn things that go beyond black and white. Both actors give their all here and deserved a much better script. Young Griffith is equally good, giving a performance that belies his youth. Supporting turns by James Van der Beek as a local patrolman and Clark Gregg as Henry’s father keep the film interesting. But time and again, the story takes a weird turn that makes you say “huh?” I’m not an expert, but if I’d just escaped from prison and was hiding out in a small town with the law looking for me I wouldn’t be out in the driveway, fixing Adele’s car. Or fixing the porch. Or out in the yard having a catch with Henry. Of course, maybe that’s just me.