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Labor Day starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet : Leave your head at home, watch it with your heart

I liked Joyce Maynard's novel Labor Day. I wrote in my post that the book was "bursting with a truth that resonates with anyone who has known what it means to have a hungry heart." A little fervent?  Maybe, but that's how the story, despite my problems with the ending, struck me.

With that in mind, the screen adaptation starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith didn't disappoint at all. I'd dealt with the improbability of the storyline's details when I read Maynard's novel so that when it came to watching the movie from director Jason Reitman - known for more cynical contemporary fare (Up in the Air, Juno, Young Adult) - I went in having a pretty good idea of what to expect. And what I saw was a beautiful, mostly faithful rendition of Maynard's novel and its themes of loss, loneliness, heartache and the power of love. If the notion of a lonely divorcee and an escaped convict falling in love over the course of a holiday weekend strikes you as ridiculous, or melodramatic then skip the film, but if you can get past that captor/prisoner scenario and you're in the mood for an old-fashioned slightly pulpy romance I highly recommend it. Especially if, like me, you're up for a good cleansing cry every now and then.

The film begins with long slow shots of tree-lined country roads, the gorgeous canopies of leaves filtering the late summer's lazy sunshine and setting the stage for the long, hot, oppressive weekend to follow. It's a weekend that changes the life of the agoraphobic divorcee Adele (Kate Winslet), her 13 year old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and the escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) forever. It's the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) who tells us the story via voiceover; a son who sees how his mother's loneliness and his own need to belong came together under Frank's watch. Watch is the word. Throughout the film, Frank and Henry both watch Adele, both constantly judging where they stand and I couldn't take my eyes off Adele either. Winslet with Adele's worry-worn expression etched upon her face is always a pleasure to watch, especially here as she subtly softens and melts over the course of the film as she realizes what Frank represents for her - a chance to finally not just love, but live again. 

I did not think that the plot was an outdated construct, casting Adele as Cinderella waiting for her prince to come. Or that the film was a celebration of female rape fantasy. I think those are easy labels to hurl; what's harder is to look at love and what it can mean. We sometimes pretend that while we love each other, we don't need each other. As if we happily pair up only so we can have a permanent date, to saunter along city sidewalks shopping and brunching and laughing together in some sort of perpetual happy ever after rom-com. That's not love, or certainly not the love story Maynard wrote, and Reitman brought to the screen. When we come together, the ties that bind us aren't the rope bonds Frank uses to secure Adele to a chair (silky scarves in Maynard's novel), it's need that harnesses our hearts to another, leading us to weather the storms of life together. For people like Adele and Frank, love looks a lot like need, and sounds a lot like salvation.  

There's a striking passage in the novel where Henry's dad tells him how passionate his mother once was, and how raw that depth of feeling left her ... "It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time."  In Reitman's film, Henry's dad (Gregg Clark) doesn't go so far. But what he does tell Henry - "I just couldn't watch anymore"  speaks volumes. After Henry's birth, Adele was plagued by a series of miscarriages and finally a still birth. While Adele remained trapped inside her grief, unable to live in a world full of other people's pregnancies and births, he had to turn away. It simply hurt him too much to stay, to watch her bleed. 

That may be part of what troubles some audiences; the pain and pathos is just too much to watch. Too unbelievable. I don't always go for the believable, sometimes I go for the sighs.

There's plenty in Labor Day that made me sigh: the wordless undeniable pull between Frank and Adele, the remarkable face of Gattlin Griffith (a young actor to watch), the stunning location and hazy yesteryear authentic period feel with spot on production and costume design from Reitman regulars Steve Saklad and Danny Glicker, respectively. 
And especially, Eric Steelberg's cinematography - see what he says about the film here - which doesn't just make for a beautiful looking film, Steelberg has used the camera to emphasize the shadows, the oppressiveness of this home where, long before Frank came on the scene, Adele had already made a prisoner of herself. 

And a couple of things to make you wince: it's much less clear here than in the novel, that Frank is a good man, imprisoned due to a series of unfortunate events put in play by a bad woman. The film tells this part of the tale in a disjointed series of flashbacks, and while flashback Frank is perfectly portrayed by young Brolin lookalike Tom Lipinski, I'll admit the reveal could be confusing to those who haven't read Maynard's more clearly stated version of events. 

And then there's the famous pie scene. I think it's fairly well known that Maynard herself was brought in to teach the actors how to make a pie, Labor Day style. And, as we learned from the cinematographer, Reitman wanted the scene to be both sexy and fun. I don't see that 'fun' was ever achieved, and as for 'sexy' the notion that this pie baking threesome - Frank, Adele and young Henry should mix the peaches together, bare hands in the sticky, juicy mess is just a little silly. In the novel, Frank, by sharing his pie-baking secrets with Adele and Henry, is seen as a man who can make something of their three separate selves, bringing them together, united as a family. Baking that peach pie should be nothing less than a labor of love. While the scene didn't quite work for me, it didn't take my pleasure off the plate. At the end of the day I had my cathartic cry; for me, Reitman had the sweet recipe for success.