The key, all-encompassing scene in Labor Day, a film whose title is your first indication that it’s a slice of Americana, fittingly takes place in a diner. During his weekly visit with his father, Gerald (Clark Gregg), Gerald’s new wife, Marjorie (Alexie Gilmore), and Marjorie’s teenage son, Richard (Lucas Hedges), 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) assumes the role of resilient punching bag. He’s chided about his thoughts of pursuing dance, patronized by Marjorie about his and Richard’s good looks, and told by Gerald, who abandoned Henry’s mom, Adele (Kate Winslet), that he “needs a man around the house.” Having grown precociously confident while quickly coming of age, sexually and otherwise, Henry shoots down any cheap shots about his non-traditional interests. He also calls out Marjorie for the incestuous nature of observing her son’s desirability, and passive-aggressively tells his father that he might have a man around the house already.
This scene arrives rather late in Jason Reitman’s fifth feature, specifically after Henry has felt the walloping influence of Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who nonviolently urges Adele and Henry to house him, and whose sheer charisma and filling of the void left by Gerald elicit Stockholm Syndrome-lite from mother and son. Before Frank’s arrival, Adele and Henry’s lives were mostly miserable, with Adele suffering from crippling depression and agoraphobia, and Henry striving, with baldly Freudian earnestness, to double as Adele’s husband in all ways but one (“I sensed my inadequacy,” says a grown, recollecting Henry, played in characteristically vexing voiceover by Tobey Maguire). Adapted by Reitman from Joyce Maynard’s novel and set in 1987, Labor Day excels by never letting one of its three protagonists take precedent over another. In Henry, Adele, and Frank, it presents a kind of unconventional love triangle, marked by hormonal awakening, romantic rebirth, masculine influence, and the fulfilling of common familial needs.
Some of this works. Bolstered by Reitman’s tactile, tightly focused fascination with everyday objects, be they the travel necessities of George Clooney’s axeman in Up in the Air, or the Memorex cassette tape Charlize Theron’s ne’er-do-well plays on repeat in Young Adult, his films have a way of leading with precise visual details, which then stealthily rope you into the broader narrative. Lying somewhere in Massachusetts, Adele and Henry’s home is unkempt and, most assuredly, hot. An amber color palette is matched with close-ups of buzzing fans, brewing coffee, and beads of sweat, and this is all before the riveting, meticulously realized preparation of a peach pie. An inexplicably accomplished cook, Frank gives Adele and Henry a crash course in baking, and all three plunge their hands into a bowl of sugared peaches, before Henry steps aside and Frank and Adele pull a Ghost, suggestively kneading dough as if it were wet clay. The scene is a whale of a multi-tasker, depicting power shifts, eroticism, innocent bonding, and the knife’s edge on which these ostensible captives sit with their beguiling guest.
Thanks in part to flashbacks and a few jolting revelations, Labor Day starts to become, in the spirit of such classic, expressly American tragedies as The Great Gatsby, a cautionary tale about the impossibility of changing the past. However, a better film would have had the gumption to maintain that poetic bleakness, rather than steer toward what ultimately feels like safe compromise. In addition, a better film would have shown far more respect for its female lead. To be necessarily discreet, Labor Day deals in redemption and forgiveness, but it also involves men who get off rather easy for their crimes against women. And though we learn that Adele’s specific feminine woe stems well beyond a longtime male absence, the story eventually pits her in a double-edged position that, for the viewer in particular, is dramatically damned either way. In short, she’s handed two fates that are equally ineffective, mercilessly caught between a rock and a maudlin place.