I have always found Kate Winslet’s honest, occasionally heartbreaking performances compelling (her near-awful turn in Titanic aside), and Labor Day could very well earn her a second Oscar. She plays a nervous, semi-agoraphobic single mother trying to bring up her young teenage son. One day on a rare trip out of the house she is intimidated by a strange man. He is wounded and puts his hand on the back of her son’s neck and says she needs to give him a ride. She goes with it, he insists on going back to her home, and there he remains for a few days.
The man, played sensitively by Josh Brolin, is an escaped convict who took flight whilst having surgery at a nearby hospital. However, he seems gentle and kind and over the course of the film he becomes something of a companion to mother and son. She needs a partner, he needs a father. The man needs sanctuary. They fit quite well.
The beauty of Jason Reitman’s sumptuous drama comes not from the romance between the mother and the convict, but between mother and son. The romance is well-acted of course, but the real love story here is parental, not sexual, helped enormously by a superb turn from 14-year old actor Gattlin Griffith. His love for his mother is very affectingly portrayed, as is his awkwardness with his shallow biological father and his homophobic brother-in-law.
After the screening I attended, I asked actor Kate Winslet on how she managed to get such a beautiful familial chemistry between her and the young boy. She explained that she struck up a strong friendship with Gattlin during and between shooting and said that it was ‘one of the most wonderful working relationships I’ve ever had’. This closeness certainly comes across well on the screen and becomes the source of most of the emotional power in the film.
Reitman, who directed Juno and Up in the Air, has confessed that this picture is very different from any film he’s done before, but the novel upon which it is adapted (by Joyce Maynard) captured his attention. His direction is sublime and he works well with cinematographer and long-time collaborator Eric Steelberg. Together they make sundrenched 1980s New England look gorgeous.
It’s a shame the film has had something of a lukewarm reception at festivals across the world. I thought it was wonderful. There have been many great films at the London Film Festival this year, and I risk sounding like a parrot when I award a number of then five stars, but Labor Day really is something special. It’s as forceful as a good novel and emotionally intuitive in ways many films can only hope to be.
Labor Day (2013), directed by Jason Reitman, is showing at the BFI London Film Festival this October. It is scheduled for release in the UK on 7 February 2014.