It’s okay to let yourself be happy, because you never know how fleeting that happiness may be. Jason Reitman’s latest effort Labor Day is a moving film that looks into how desperately we seek happiness and how quickly that happiness can be torn away once it is achieved. It is a snapshot of the happiness found with the storm clouds looming on the horizon. The film carries a melancholic tone to it, even during moments when things are seemingly good.
The story takes place on Labor Day in 1987. Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith) is a young teenager who lives with and looks after his deeply depressed mother Adele (Kate Winslet). He has essentially become the man of the house after his father (Clark Gregg) left them to start a family with his own secretary. Henry does his best to look after his mother but deep down inside he knows he can never provide for her like how a husband can. During a trip to the department store, Henry and Adele encounter Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict that forces the mother and son to take him in so he can lay low and hide from the authorities. As menacing Frank seems at first, his cold demeanour quickly fades and the captor/hostage relationship quickly turns into something drastically different. Frank has suddenly become the father figure that Henry lacked and he has also become the husband that Adele has been yearning for. While everything seems to be going well, flashbacks to Frank’s past and the ongoing cops’ pursuit looms over this ‘family’ and threatens to destroy whatever joy they have managed to salvage.
The film is carried by the high calibre performances of the cast. Kate Winslet turns up another great performance as Adele, but given her previous roles as unhappy homemakers in Revolutionary Road and Little Children, it is no surprise that she can pull it off once again. Josh Brolin does a respectable job as the convict with a big heart. His cold demeanour makes him difficult to read and at times, you still fear for the safety of Adele and Henry despite his good gestures. As the characters begin to empathize with Frank, as the audience, we also get won over and hope that he never gets caught by the police. Gatlin Griffith does a fantastic job as a young naive teen who is still trying to figure out the dynamics of human nature. Tobey Maguire narrates the proceedings as the older Henry looking back. After The Great Gatsby and this, it would probably be a good idea for the actor to pursue other work before being typecast as the passive observer and narrator of films.
Labor Day is not Jason Reitman’s best work, but it is his most mature film to date. It’s a nice mixture of a coming-of-age tale with romance. The film was at its strongest during the events of Labor Day 1987. The beautiful cinematography and the warm colour palette of the film bring quite the emotional punch during that fateful long weekend. Despite all the strong points, the rushed ending to wrap up the film did prevent this film from reaching its full potential. The film doesn’t try to be overly sentimental, though there are a few moments when it is borderline mawkish. Take the scene where Frank teaches Adele and Henry how to make pies. It felt too much like a Hollywood moment and I could hear my head play Unchained Melody as it happened. Also the excessive narrating takes a bit away from the film because it feels like they are trying to spoon feed the audience as to what is going on, but sometimes I think as an audience, we have the ability to connect the dots. Despite the deliberate attempts to explain everything to the audience, this is a beautiful film. Sadly, like all beautiful things, it comes to an end and we mourn the loss of the good moments. By the time the film catches up to the present, it’s easy to yearn for the nicer parts of the movie. Like the central theme of the movie, beautiful things don’t last forever, but at least it will be worth remembering once everything is said and done.