The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Labor Day

Jason Reitman has yet to make a film I haven't loved. His previous efforts - Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult - were all, to varying degrees, comedies that found laughs in very human stories. His latest, Labor Day, is a change of pace, in that it's a straight drama, based on Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name. Few things are as exciting as watching a filmmaker move outside of a well-established comfort zone, and Labor Day serves as proof that Reitman is an ambitious director, as well as a true talent.

Set in 1987, the film begins with an opening credit sequence that takes us from the beautiful suburbs of New Hampshire to the rundown outskirts. It is here that Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) lives with her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Adele is deeply depressed, having never recovered from the fact that her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary. She rarely leaves the house and often visibly shakes with anxiety. Henry is left to tend to her. On one of Adele's rare trips to the store, she and her son are confronted by Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who insists they take him back home. He claims that he will only hide there until the trains start running after the holiday weekend, but something unusual happens. He's handy around the house, bakes a mean peach pie, and treats Adele with total respect. Frank is even willing to act as father figure to the pubescent Henry. The single mother and the convicted murderer begin to develop an attraction. Meanwhile, the police scour the town looking for him.

Labor Day starts off a little slowly, and it's not initially clear where the plot is heading. Once it has some running time under its belt, though, the film intriguingly reveals that it is not Adele's story so much as it is Henry's. The young character has a difficult dilemma: after watching his mother exist in desperate unhappiness for so long, he finally sees her mood brighten considerably, but it's with someone who may be a bad person. This is where the movie starts to become really captivating. Labor Day looks at what happens when a child witnesses a parent finding happiness through a bad decision. Henry doesn't know what to do. Frank seems okay on the surface, but Adele could get in big trouble for harboring him. Does he protect his mother emotionally by helping to hide Frank's presence and therefore allowing her happiness to continue, or does he protect her legally by blowing the whistle? The way Henry grapples with this issue provides some very compelling drama.

Making a film of this nature work requires spot-on performances, and Labor Day has got them. Kate Winslet is outstanding as the damaged Adele. The actress powerfully and heartbreakingly conveys how fragile Adele is, how she's just barely hanging on in life. Winslet has an unexpectedly strong chemistry with Josh Brolin; a scene where they make a peach pie is to this movie what the pottery wheel scene was to Ghost. To Brolin's credit, you never know for certain (or at least until the end) whether Frank's intentions are sincere or manipulative. This adds a layer of drama. The most crucial performance comes from Gattlin Griffith, who possesses a strikingly soulful quality that gives Henry's quandary even more weight. Every conflicting emotion and shifting thought the boy has is meaningfully brought to life by the young actor.

Jason Reitman directs Labor Day with the pace of a really good novel. Whereas many literary adaptations focus mainly on the plot, this one takes the time to illustrate some of the interior changes happening with the characters. There's also an effective use of flashbacks that gradually (and tantalizingly) reveal the crime that landed Frank in prison. I'm not sure how Maynard's novel ends, but I wish the film had ended about three minutes sooner than it does. There's a really poignant moment that seems a near-perfect finish, but then we get a coda that feels just a bit too neat and tidy. There is much to savor here nonetheless. Labor Day is sensitively made and nicely acted, with a theme about the pain of living with an unhappy parent that strikes a real emotional chord. Give it time and it gets under your skin.

( 1/2 out of four)

Labor Day is rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.

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