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Labor Day – Movie Review

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Labor Day – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

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Since his feature directorial debut Thank You for Smoking premiered about eight years ago, Jason Reitman quickly established himself as a promising new talent among young filmmakers. He has since lived up to that by crafting an impressive catalogue of films that tackle both the funny and dramatic little eccentricities of his characters and their lives. Labor Day is a different turn for Reitman, as his trademark comedy is mostly absent in favour of a very sad, emotionally riveting story. However, his love for characters and what defines them is still evident on the screen and with a strong group of actors to work with, he lets the audience in on who these people are and their inner conflicts.

Labor Day has three lead characters and the screenplay, adapted from Joyce Maynard’s book, juggles and develops all of them without one getting in the way of the other. Being a romance, the son could have been left on the wayside, but he proves as pivotal to the central story. The relationship between fraught mother Adele and her growing son Henry is as effectively handled as the love that forms between escaped prisoner Frank and her. There is a sense of the worry that Henry is feeling with this new man in her mother’s life and this fear that she might leave him behind as the romance continues to blossom. The Adele-Frank romance is not contrived and is fully believable. There is never a moment where we question what Adele sees in him and the movie never enters maudlin schmaltziness, either.

When Frank teaches them how to bake an apple pie, Reitman could have easily turned this scene into a ridiculous moment of smiling faces and cheesy music, but his careful directing eye makes it an honest moment that is very pivotal in developing these people. Reitman also has a real eye for using flashbacks, having them pop up sporadically through the story and at the necessary moments. He carefully places them and slowly reveals the content of the flashbacks, so there is always this moment of guessing, particularly in regards to Frank’s past. When the moment that ruined Adele’s outlook on life is revealed, it’s expertly placed and as such, the emotion is fully earned.

The performances also prove pivotal in making these characters seem like real people. Kate Winslet continues to showcase herself as one of today’s most reliable actresses, able to dig deep into almost any character. Adele is immediately established as a mother stuck in a world of sadness and Winslet captures her sorrow. As Henry, Gattlin Griffith gives a subtle and realistic performance, using mainly his eyes to act out the role. Yet he does not appear stone-faced, but rather somebody lost and confused about his place in his mother’s life. He has to pick up the pieces dropped by his mother and try and help her overcome the sadness she has been feeling for a while, but he also understands Adele’s predicament. Josh Brolin brings a multi-layered gruffness to Frank, showing both his inner goodness and the desperate rough side he displays when the fear of returning to prison sets in. He displays excellent chemistry with both Winslet and Griffith and all three work together to bring a small, but electric ensemble of personalities to the screen.

However, even running through the entire picture, there is an uncertainty over where exactly Frank’s intentions lie. As the characters’ plans continue to evolve, the story gets even more tense with Reitman’s finger always on the trigger button. In many scenes, characters are not simply sweating from the heat, but rather due to the extreme situations they are put under and the wave of suspicion running through the townspeople as a  prisoner is on the loose. Reitman’s screenplay and direction both produce a lot of feelings, but never becomes too obvious with its intentions and thus, the characters and story feel real and not a product of the filmmaker’s idea of how people operate. It is that unique grasp of characters that makes the stories in Reitman’s work so fascinating, whether he’s writing his own screenplay or filming Diablo Cody’s work.

With Labor Day, Jason Reitman manages to show his impressive versatility as a filmmaker. He has a massive talent for telling stories about flawed individuals in either humourous or serious situations and never making them seem false. After this movie, the sky is the limit for what he can do, as he seems to have his thumb on almost every human emotion and as a result, is one of the best and most honest directors working today. If he does make a disappointing film, it probably will not be for a very long time.

Review By: Stefan Ellison

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