FOR Hollywood in the teens of the 21st century, screen romance is pretty much the province of the young. This is nothing new, of course, but today's romances, which it sometimes seems are invariably derived from novels by Nicholas Sparks, are, for the most part, superficial and trite. A fairly warm welcome, then, to Labor Day, a new film from Jason Reitman, director of such sophisticated movies as Juno and Up in the Air. Reitman's screenplay for this mature love story is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the risk it takes in presenting a rather unusual amalgam of The Bridges of Madison County and The Desperate Hours.
The voice of Tobey Maguire narrates the events that occurred on the last weekend of the summer of 1987 (Labor Day weekend). Maguire's character, Henry, is looking back at the time when he was 14, played by Gattlin Griffith, and living with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), in a suffocating suburban house. Adele is a deeply unhappy woman; her husband, Henry's father (Clark Gregg), left them some time earlier for reasons that are revealed later in the film. He lives not far away with his new wife and children, and keeps in touch with his son, but Henry is acutely aware of his mother's loneliness.
Like the character played by Meryl Streep in Clint Eastwood's excellent Madison County, Adele's life is about to be transformed by the unexpected arrival of a stranger. When Adele and Henry visit the local supermarket on the Friday before the long weekend, they're accosted by a man who forces them to drive him to their home.
The man, a convict who has just escaped from a prison hospital, is wounded and desperate. His name is Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) and he's been serving 18 years for murder (again, the details of his crime only emerge late in the film). If he can hide out until his wound heals, he believes, he stands a chance of escaping the police dragnet that has locked down the area.
By this time the film has entered The Desperate Hours territory (the thriller in which a dangerous runaway convict takes over the home of an honest, average family and terrorises them). But that's not the direction Labor Day is going to take, and therein lies the difficulty some audiences may experience with it. Frank proves to be the most decent, kindly, thoughtful escaped convict the screen has given us since We're No Angels, and although the reasons for this are gradually, and for the most part pretty convincingly, explained, his behaviour is at times too good to be true.
Fortunately, Reitman is no hack director. His intelligence and skill manage to make the story's improbabilities more acceptable than you might at first suppose and in this he's enormously assisted by his three principal actors. Winslet beautifully captures the longing and frustration of the abandoned wife who reacts with a kind of amazement at the kindly presence of a man she at first feared would be a violent and dangerous intruder. And though Brolin's Frank is almost saintly (a handyman who can bake a peach pie, and a surrogate father into the bargain), the actor brings conviction to this challenging role. None of the drama would work as well as it does, though, without a strong young actor in the role of Henry, and Griffith achieves everything demanded of him. Although he's too young to understand his mother's needs, he gradually responds to the father figure who has unexpectedly entered his world. In addition, his scenes with a more experienced girl his own age, played with mature knowingness by Brighid Fleming, are particularly effective.
Though it undeniably tackles risky material and is a far cry from the light, humorous approach of the director's better-known films, Labor Day is ultimately surprisingly satisfying, though the sentimental coda is a little cloying. As a bonus, it's most beautifully photographed by Eric Steelberg, whose images of a remembered childhood, seen in this case through rose-coloured spectacles, are exquisitely achieved.
Labor Day (M)
National release from February 6
Labor Day gives a rose-coloured view of a romance on the run