Labor Day: Telluride Review

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures
A nuanced, superbly acted love story with a most unusual genesis.

Jason Reitman's love story stars Kate Winslet as a depressed mother who gives a wounded, and perhaps dangerous, stranger (Josh Brolin) a ride in her car.

The nowadays seldom-visited Hollywood women’s picture receives an intelligent and emotionally potent modern treatment in Labor Day. On the basis of Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult and now his work here with Kate Winslet, Jason Reitman is arguably unsurpassed as a contemporary American director of actresses, and his work overall on this simple but delicate story of a lonely single mother’s quickly blossoming romance with an escaped convict is skillfully modulated. Told from the point of view of the woman’s vulnerable son, this Christmas Day release from Paramount should be promotable to solid returns on the basis of its offbeat story and heart-tugging appeal.

PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival: The Films

Adapted by Reitman from the fine 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, the story hinges on the elemental appeal of witnessing a formerly vibrant and sensual woman, long since withered emotionally and sexually by abandonment and a related trauma, being reawakened by a strong and confident, albeit deeply flawed, man. This process, which unfolds rapidly over the course of a long holiday weekend, is framed by the insecurities but also admiring perspective of the 13-year-old son, who learns a lot from the interloper but is fearful of becoming the odd man out.

Adele (Winslet), an unkempt, pushing-40 beauty, lives with son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in a similarly untended-to house in smalltown 1987 New England (New Hampshire in the novel, Massachusetts here). Reitman, with crucial assistance from the low-keyed underscoring of composer Rolfe Kent, keeps the suspense at a purposeful low boil throughout the early going as the brutishly handsome and powerfully built Frank (Josh Brolin) politely but firmly approaches the pair in a large convenience store and insists they give him a ride.

Bleeding from several places and clearly desperate, the goateed Frank is an intriguing but unsettling mix of gentlemanly and threatening, meaning that Adele and Henry are tense but not panicky upon learning that he was injured when he jumped out of the second-story hospital window at the prison where he was serving 18 years for murder. It’s clear virtually from his entrance that this is the best film role Brolin has had since No Country for Old Men and maybe ever, and he makes the most of it.

ANALYSIS: Telluride: 'Labor Day' Plays in 'Argo' Slot, But Will It Follow in Oscar Footsteps?

The fugitive at first ties Adele up for appearances’ sake and quickly begins to ingratiate himself by fixing the place up, repairing the car, teaching the sports-hating Henry about baseball and, most of all, by cooking. The ultimate man-about-the-house, Frank first gives the bound Adele a little charge by slowly hand-feeding her a little something he’s thrown together.

But this is nothing compared to when he engages his increasingly cooperative hosts in making from scratch the world’s greatest peach pie, a process elaborately detailed with an emphasis on the erotic potential of mutually squeezing and mashing bowls full of fruit by hand and massaging and folding the crust. The way Frank looks at, talks to and touches Adele has the desired effect and it only takes two nights for the hormonally erupting Henry to overhear his mother being joined by a man in her bedroom for the first time.

All this could have been overdone to obvious, even gross effect, but Reitman keeps a strong grip on all the aspects of the story to prevent it from becoming corny, unduly melodramatic or obvious. There are little contrivances, such as the nosy neighbors and Frank’s presumed sexual prowess despite having had an appendectomy two days earlier, but the elemental truths easily dominate under the director’s watchful eye.

Quickly, then, the story turns from being one of kidnappers and hostages to one of lovers determined to find a way to escape together. The fly in the ointment is Henry, who is supposed to start school on the Tuesday after Labor Day and whose initial fear of being traded by his mother to his departed father’s new family might crack the necessary secrecy of their flight.

The film emits frequent pangs of emotion and tension, which enable it to prevail over threats from the cliches and inevitabilities of the story’s format. There is more than one instance when events will cause many viewers’ hearts to leap, as they say, into their throats, and the wrap-up is quietly satisfying.

Managing to look both frumpy and alluring, and summoning will and desire from inside a somewhat worn exterior in the manner of her fine recent work as Mildred Pierce (another pie maker!), Winslet outstandingly reveals the numerous ways Adele is pulled emotionally by the sudden eventfulness of her life after all these years. Winslet has always been good at portraying the embrace of romance and sex, but this is augmented by the gradual revelation, in crisp flashbacks using younger actors, that brought her to the point of having signed off on love.

Tobey Maguire narrates the proceedings as an older Henry looking back, only to be briefly seen at the end pursuing his chosen calling. After this and The Great Gatsby, however, the actor should forgo any further passive observer characters for fear of being forever neutered. Young Griffith is excellent playing Henry as a boy.

Production values are modest and everything they need to be.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: Dec. 25 (Paramount)
Production: Right of Way, Mr. Mudd
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Clark Gregg, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard
Producers: Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith, Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook
Executive producers: Steven Rales, Mark Roybal, Michael Beugg, Jeffrey Clifford
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Steve Saklad
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
Music: Rolfe Kent

Rated PG-13, 111 minutes