Much is being made of the fact that “Labor Day” is Jason Reitman’s first full-blown drama. The director started his career in 2005 with an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s smart satire “Thank You for Smoking” and garnered his first Oscar nomination for 2007’s teenage pregnancy comedy “Juno.” He’s also the son of Ivan Reitman, director of classic comedies such as “Ghostbusters.”
Even the filmmaker himself sees “Labor Day” as a departure; he told the late Roger Ebert, “I may not nail it on this film, it may just be my first step.”
But there’s always been an element of seriousness underlying the flippancy in Mr. Reitman’s films. And his best work — 2009’s “Up in the Air,” an adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel, which earned him three more Oscar nods — was so moving because of the deep emotions it explored.
The younger Mr. Reitman did prove prophetic, though: With “Labor Day,” he doesn’t quite “nail it.” But he comes awfully close. The film proves the writer-director can keep our attention by being perfectly sincere, without the comfortable crutch of comic caricature.
The story, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, takes place one long weekend at the end of summer in 1987 New England. It’s a coming-of-age tale told by an adult (Tobey Maguire) looking back on the moment that made him a man. Thirteen-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) tries to be both son and husband to his mother, the almost catatonically depressed Adele (Kate Winslet). “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself,” he tells us, in one of his typically astute lines. His father, Gerald (Clark Gregg), has started a happy new family with his former secretary while Adele can only force herself out of the house once a month to get supplies at the local general store.
It’s during one of those rare trips that mother and son meet Frank (Josh Brolin). With blood oozing from wounds on his head and torso, Frank puts his hand on young Henry in the clothing section and, menacingly, “asks” Adele for a ride. When they’re finally in her station wagon, he demands to be taken to their home. But it’s soon clear this isn’t some typical escaped convict: Frank helps carry in the bags and quickly notices that Adele’s fence is in a terrible state of disrepair.
Frank, frankly, is too good to be true. While hiding out in Adele’s house, he fixes floorboards and fences before feeding the family. But Adele is a rather singular creation, too. As the man who was in prison for murder pushes his way into her home, she says, “You’ll have to excuse the mess. We’ve been busy.”
You can guess what happens next, and what will happen after that. And yet “Labor Day” is filled with suspense, the whole movie overlaid with a certain heaviness that can make the audience feel as spent as the characters do on this ragingly hot holiday. Rolfe Kent’s score didn’t need to so obviously inform us of the dread just around the corner.
That’s not so say there are no light moments in “Labor Day.” Ms. Winslet and Mr. Brolin, especially, make sure of that. Neither Adele nor Frank is much for talking at the start, but they don’t need to. The great actors playing them can tell us — and each other — much with just a look. It’s Mr. Reitman’s camera work, though, that first clues us in to the longing they’ll turn to each other, as unlikely as it first seems, to satisfy. So many of his shots are sensual, whether they’re of Frank sliding rope across Adele’s limbs to tie her up or of the peach pie the felon memorably makes. But they’re just as masterful when they’re not, as when, at one point, we see Adele move from the sun back into the shadows.
Henry’s intermittent narration is the one really false step here — especially when it comes right after Adele and Frank have shared an intimate moment that the teenager couldn’t possibly have seen or understood. Perhaps after “Labor Day,” Mr. Reitman will feel more comfortable directing a drama with the self-confidence he’s surely earned.
TITLE: “Labor Day”
CREDITS: Written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.