Thursday, February 13, 2014

Labor Day

LABOR DAY              B                     
USA  (111 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Jason Reitman          Official site [Brazil]

While this is just an old-fashioned romance, told in the mythic Hollywood style where the prince in shining armor arrives on horseback and slays all the dragons, rescuing the fair maiden and earning her heart in the process, it does retain a certain fantasy element, where one finds this hard to believe, yet there’s also something oddly compelling about it.  Based on Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel, the same author that wrote the source material for Gus van Sant’s dark satire To Die For (1995), this is another film with a major woman’s role, this time starring Kate Winslet as a divorced mother Adele suffering from severe depression (including signs of agoraphobia), as she’s afraid to leave the safety of her home, rarely ever leaving the house.  Compensating for her fears and anxieties is her 13-year old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who recognizes her loneliness, understanding that she never recovered from having her heart stolen from her when her husband left, “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but, rather, losing love itself,” so he willingly looks after his mom, taking care of her as much as he can, and runs all the household errands for her.  While the book is set in New Hampshire, the film was shot in various small towns in Massachusetts that convincingly retain the period look of 1987.  In the opening sequence, the camera glides through a seemingly neverending canopy of trees as we move further away from the posh suburbs out into the tree-lined street of a rural small town, where, interestingly, another actor is narrating the first person voiceover of Henry, the recognizable Tobey Maguire, who doesn’t figure into the film until the final ten minutes, seen as an older adult version of Henry, where many of his earlier thoughts read like a personal memoir.  Despite the high wattage star of Winslet as his mother, this relatively unknown kid carries the picture on his shoulder, as it’s all seen through his eyes.     

Persuading his mother to leave the house, the two spend the first day of the last weekend of summer together stocking up on needed school supplies, when Henry is pulled aside by a bleeding stranger, Frank (Josh Brolin), indicating he needs some help, and somehow manages to talk the two of them into allowing him to come home with them, placing his arm menacingly around Henry and telling Adele, “Frankly, this needs to happen.”  By the time they get home to sort things out, he tells them he’s an escaped prisoner, that he jumped out of a 2nd story hospital window while recovering from an appendectomy operation.  Promising to be out in the morning, hoping to catch a ride on a freight train, hearing a whistle off in the distance, the underlying tension is established in silence, where part of the unique power of the film is its wordless quality, and what little dialogue we hear is essential, while the rest is captured in a kind of quiet intrigue.  These harrowing moments are unsettling, as he’s inclined to tie them up, where this act of making Adele a prisoner in her own home is ironic considering psychologically speaking she’s already a prisoner.  The look of helplessness and fear on her face is palpable, but her concern is for Henry, so Frank reassures her, ”I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone in my life.”  The television news reports, however, suggest he’s been serving 18 years for murder and the police warn the public he could be armed and dangerous.  Instead he goes on a wordless montage of fixing things up around the house, one after another, and even cooks up something to eat, where he spoonfeeds Adele bite by bite, while at the same time the director serves the audience brief flashbacks of Frank’s past, where we’re able to see what landed Frank in jail.  Certainly one recurring parallel between Frank and Adele are their mutual thoughts of regret and sadness, where perhaps they’ve both been living their whole lives containing these haunting feelings of sorrow and loss.    

Frank’s ease around the house, instantly making himself helpful, becoming the man that’s missing for both of them, feels too good to be true, where neither Henry nor his mom want him to go, urging him to stay just a bit longer for his wounds to heal, but the other side of the coin is they both have to hide his presence from the rest of the world, where occasional contact with actual people send them into anxiety mode.  Henry is at an age where every girl is a godsend, and one literally falls into his lap, Mandy (Maika Monroe), an outsider teen who’s been badly scarred from her parent’s trauma-inflicting divorce, believing adults routinely get rid of kids to do what they want, which is have sex.  And while she’s busy describing the teenage apocalyptic philosophy of doom, which makes perfect sense to her, Frank and Adele are thinking about making a run for the border (like Bonnie and Clyde, according to Mandy), escaping to Canada where they can start a new life.  But as events fall into place, one of more more telling scenes happens when Henry spends Sunday with his Dad (Clark Gregg) and extended family, taking place at a Friendly’s family restaurant, which is an embarrassing depiction of what “normal” looks like in America, where adults are overly patronizing, to the point of being nauseating, while the kids are bored silly.  This brief encounter hovers like a cloud of soot and smog over Henry’s horizon, as this is the life he could be leading, and instead he’s got Bonnie and Clyde, where the love-starved Frank and Adele become infatuated, bringing Adele out of her funk, where taking a chance on Frank is dangerous, but he’s attentive to Henry, becoming a poignant coming-of-age story while also showing the great risks involved in romance.  While there’s a bit of schmaltz involved in the ending, the novelist Joyce Maynard once experienced an intense exchange of a flurry of letters in a relationship with a convicted murderer, suggesting ordinary people can be driven by impulsive decisions and reckless behavior, and that sometimes one must make a leap of faith to find love.    

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