The Hamptons International Film Festival screened Labor Day, a Jason Reitman directed and written film based upon the book by Joyce Maynard. To his credit, Reitman’s adaption of the book allows Maynard’s brilliance to come into the story with irony, humor and pathos. Peeling back the layers, Reitman’s screenplay and superb direction emphasizes how need, pain and loneliness can shape individuals’ lives, and if they wait with patience long enough, the care and humanity they’ve shown can come back to them with a crop of blessings.
Adele Wheeler (expertly played by the consummate Kate Winslet) is divorced and lives alone with her 13-year-old son Henry (a feeling Gattlin Griffith) who does see his father, but doesn’t understand why he left the family to be with another woman. As the son struggles to be the man of the house, Adele has become reclusive in her sad loneliness and their shabby, diminished existence. Though she barely has the energy or the wherewithal to get ready for it, the new school year is beginning and she has to go shopping with Henry for clothing. It is on their trip to the store that Frank Chambers ( portrayed with a subtle, tense, nuanced performance by Josh Brolin) ingratiates himself with Henry and manipulates both mother and son to bring him home.
Frank Chambers notes the run down house, this potentially attractive but emotionally downtrodden woman alone with her son and turns the situation to his advantage, making himself useful by offering to do some chores. He even shows his culinary talents in the kitchen, cooking a delicious chili dinner. Both Adele and Henry are grateful for his company and allow their emotional vulnerability to suppress their better instincts about just who this Frank character is. But his food is exceptional (Adele barely cooks) and their demonstrated hunger is the craving for a father and a potential lover and someone to care for them and make them feel they matter in an indifferent culture.
Winslet, Griffith and Brolin do a terrific job. They are a superb ensemble, mitigating the gaps in our incredulity as to how and why Adele and Henry don’t readily turn in Frank after they discover that he is an escaped convict on the lam. Part of the reason is their desperate hope to fill the hollow carved out by the painful rejection of their father/ husband who selfishly and coldly dumped them to “move up” into a better life. One callous man allowed them to devolve into the misery of a non existence; his act perhaps is criminal and unjust, but socially it is viewed as natural and a matter of course. Another man wants redemption, longing to help them and himself out of their misery, superlatively filling the place of the man who abandoned them. Frank is kind, warm and embracing, but socially he is a criminal who must pay his debt to justice. The ironic reversals are interesting as are the themes of how society and the media tend to view people superficially, often distorting the truth to fulfill an agenda, missing the deeper aspects of an individual’s true nature and being.
Another reason why Frank is accepted is that he has a strong imperative, not necessarily to escape, which if he intended to, he would have left immediately. His imperative is love and expiation, the embrace of a woman and her son, the family he thought he had (Frank was with someone who was unworthy of him, and they had a child.) but in reality never did have. Adele and Henry elicit and fulfill these yearnings in Frank, and Henry would most likely be the age of Frank’s child who was killed. They are the family that Frank always wanted; Frank is the father and the husband that Adele and Henry wanted. They work as a family unit. They have stumbled upon each other, but the circumstances and timing are off. This creates the tension that builds because we and the characters know that this can go on only so long. Frank must leave; the question is how and when?
Another interesting tension is that Frank is charming, warm and truly affectionate, open-hearted qualities that belie the media alerts that he is a dangerous criminal they should run from. Not only does he mend broken hearts and fences falling down, he is a superb baker of pies, the ironic, metaphoric antithesis of a killer. Coupled with flashbacks which reveal what he has done and his statement that the media and papers don’t tell the entire truth, the tension of neighbors turning him in and police snooping around create suspense, contradiction and a conundrum.
We empathize with this killer as we watch Henry and Adele empathize and care for him. Though we consider that he is what the media reports portray him to be, we don’t want him to be caught. Seduced by his sincere warmth and good will, we enjoy being with this family and hope that their heavenly few days spent together continue long beyond Labor Day. Adele and Henry have accepted Frank, despite his outer social stigma and have forgiven him because of his inner goodness which the media and the culture cannot take the time to support or visualize. And we have forgiven him too, though we are waiting in a twisted anticipation for the shoe to drop and the dream to be smashed by a sheriff’s bullet or Frank’s reveal that we have not read him right and he is a charming, murdering con.
It turns out that Frank is who we think he is. Though we are spared his death, he is captured and additionally punished to the sorrow of Adele and Henry. He tells her it was worth it, he would do it again. We believe him, for he stayed with them rather than keep on running, embraced by the ineffable warmth and comfort of a mother and her son which he received and gave back in manifold generosity. He paid for their love with his second incarceration and vanquished all of the pain that went before, including his remorse for his child’s death.
For a fleeting 5 days up until Labor Day, each experienced a bit of heaven; their lives have been immeasurably enriched, and the love in this family has united them spiritually. Labor Day was the turning point setting each on the road to restoration. By the end of the film we understand how Frank’s and Adele’s unity is greater than any appropriate societal coupling which many times leads to separation and divorce, or icy alienation even hatred if the couple remains together out of fear. It is rare when this bonding is found, rarer when it is maintained and rarest still when it is fulfilled, perfected by temperance and patience.
Years later Frank returns to Adele’s love after serving his sentence, and they remain together for the rest of their lives. He is alerted that the family door will always be open when he stumbles across Henry’s (Toby McGuire narrates) magazine advertisement for the beautifully baked pies (using Frank’s recipe) in Henry’s bakery business.
This is a great film that will appeal to a general audience. (The men laughed at Brolin’s endearing and manly qualities and bristled during his tense capture.) It is a mixture of coming of age tale, romance and inspirational homely. It is also a chilling expose of our calculating culture, our preconceptions, our prejudices leading to an oft twisted justice. The actors run deep with the characters’ emotions and sound our hearts with their truth. It’s a powerful film that will resonate with its humor and suspense. Can you figure out the additional meanings of the title? Their ironies abound as only Joyce Maynard could infer them to in her story telling. Reitman kept he title and the book’s core inviolate. It’s to his credit he did.