Labor Day: Where’s Tobey Maguire?

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by Nadin P.

Labor Day is an American drama directed by Jason Reitman. Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, it features Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith, and takes place in a small town in New England over the long hot Labor Day weekend of 1987.

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Narrated by 13-year old Henry (in the voice of Tobey Maguire), Labor Day introduces us to his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) who suffers from depression and nervous breakdown after a series of miscarriages and the divorce the followed them. According to Henry, it wasn’t the loss of his father that triggered his mother’s withdrawal from the world but rather the loss of love itself. Fragile emotionally, Adele rarely leaves the house, barely keeping the household together, and depends significantly on Henry when it comes to simple errands and basic needs.

The events start unraveling when the two take a trip to the supermarket to refill their supplies where an injured man named Frank (Josh Brolin) approaches Henry asking him and Adele for a ride. Although not particularly threatening, he doesn’t seem to leave them any choice, and so they take off back to Adele’s house where Frank – who turns out being an escaped convict – plans to hide for a few hours until it’s safe for him to take off. Not planning on actually harming the mother or the kid, Frank does tie Adele up for a while so that she and Henry couldn’t be charged as accomplices. In case the cops showed up – what with the neighborhood swarming with them, looking for Frank – Adele could always tell that Frank was holding them hostages. And that wouldn’t even be a lie.

Frank stays the night, sleeping on the couch, and then with the trains not running as regularly as he hoped for, Labor Day considered, he ends up being stuck with Adele and Henry for a few days, fixing small things around the house and playing baseball with Henry. And most importantly – he shares his peach pie recipe which becomes a big thing later on. Not to mention the whole American Pie implications of it, which are hard to ignore.

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Needless to say that a starved for love Adele and the desperate man who spent 18 years in prison fall madly in love in a matter of hours, leaving Henry question all kinds of consequences and repercussions and his own opinions about love and life.

In the process we learn the details of Adele’s relationship with her ex husband and why it fell apart as well the truth about Frank’s “conviction” and imprisonment, which is of course one of an innocent man whose life was broken by a huge misunderstanding, told beautifully by a series of puzzling flashbacks until the final ones reveal the whole truth, like pieces of jigsaw falling in place.

Everything starts falling apart when Adele, Frank and Henry decide to run away to Canada, and Henry, being a good boy, leaves a letter to his father who realizes that something is not okay and sends the police to Adele’s house. Gentleman that he is, Frank makes sure that Adele and Henry are out of trouble – by tying them up again – and gives himself up, going back to prison for 25 more years.

All in all, Labor Day is a sad, lovely and bittersweet film that perfectly captures the summer heat of 1987 and the smell of Frank’s infamous peach pie. Even in February, you just can’t help feeling the humidity and thick summer air, hanging around you like a veil.

Kate Winslet, without a doubt, stole the film, making it impossible not to feel for Adele – a broken shell of a person, living in the house that falls apart around her, representing the state of her own fragile mind.

For young Henry, the weekend is a challenge as he has to deal with everything at once – from having to harbor a potentially dangerous criminal, to witnessing a great deal of sexual tension between said criminal and his mother, to having to reevaluate everything he knows about love, to going through his own turmoil regarding the situation.

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Add ‘the new girl in town’ Henry meets at the convenience store who implies that the grown-ups will leave him behind in a blink of an eye if it comes to choosing between their relationship and Henry, and there you go! A whole new level of coming-of-age drama. You can basically see Henry being torn between what he think is right for his mom – and obviously having a man who makes her feel alive can’t be a bad thing, not after witnessing what she’s turned into after the divorce – and his own fears of being abandoned because try as he might, he can’t replace an actual husband.

Josh Brolin is definitely doing a fantastic job of portraying a ‘hard on the outside, soft on the inside’ criminal whose attempted escape is nothing but trying to make things right after spending 18 years in prison for the crime he didn’t commit. He can be intimidating and dangerous without really trying, and the next thing you know – he’s cleaning the gutters and changing car oil and baking pies that you can smell just by looking at them.

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Yet, keep in mind that not every adaptation can successfully convey everything the book was meant to tell. While the sexual tension between Frank and Adele that was so thick you could cut it with a knife was explicable and expected, it did border on creepy and sometimes quite inappropriate, especially in front of young Henry. All things considered, it must have been traumatizing and every kind of confusing, which creeped me out, a lot.

Another thing that I wanted but couldn’t understand was why on earth would Adele just go along with Frank’s not really threats and not, I don’t know, ask for help at the cash register at the supermarket full of poeple. It’s not like he was armed or anything. Plus, he was bleeding, which obviously made him weaker than if he was completely okay. It made no sense! Obviously, it was needed for the plot, but there must have been other ways to make the scene more plausible.

And then comes the whole “let’s fix your car and play catch in the back yard” thing while the police is cruising the area day and night, looking for him. Okay, the house is hot, it’s boring, and there’s only so many pies you can bake, but WHY GO OUTSIDE WHERE PEOPLE COULD SEE YOU?!

The storyline that didn’t quite play out the way it was meant to was the one with the handicapped kid who Adele had to babysit for a day and who recognized Frank on the news and tried to tell his mom (who was a total bitch, by the way). It felt like there had to be more to it, but it just went into nothing instead of raising the stakes and adding more tension (dangerous, not sexual for a change) to the plot.

Then there’s an inappropriately invasive cop played by James Van Der Beek who catches Henry going back home from did dad’s place on the first day of school, which is incidentally the day the happy trio is supposed to take off for Canada, giving him a ride and insisting on helping Adele with the boxed stuff for “charity”, which also went nowhere in particular, adding some tension for a couple of minutes but not really playing out in the long run.

Tying up the loose ends would probably give the story a much better wrap up. However, all plot holes considered, the way it did end was a definite win in my opinion. They didn’t go for some soppy fairy tale-ish happily ever after, settling for a fast forward montage that captured the years following Frank’s second arrest and the impact it had on the lives of both Adele and Henry, and how that Labor Day weekend changed everything about them.

I would not call Labor Day an absolute must-see. It will not stand out among other films of similar kind. It is, however, a film to be appreciated by a certain audience , the fans of fine performance and people who enjoy the smell of a freshly baked peach pie.

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Four screenwriters candidly writing about film, television, novels, comic books, video games, and fanfiction.

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