For listeners of the James T. Harris show – I honestly didn’t hate this movie as much as it sounded like! Actually, I just had too many opportunities to poke fun at it.
So, here’s the real skinny.
Labor Day is based on a book, for those of you who don’t know, written by Joyce Maynard. It’s clear that the movie is based on a larger story. Throughout the movie I kept thinking to myself that there is a personal story on the cusp of coming to the surface. In many scenes, it seemed the heart of the story almost burst through the narration and lingering Terrance Malike-esque montages.
The problem, as I suspected from watching the movie trailers, is the movie burdens itself unnecessarily by making one of it’s key players, Frank, an escaped convict. This might be more of an indictment on the book itself, which I haven’t read. Regardless, the audience is asked to suspend disbelief concerning the relationships of the main characters, who do not have a clear motivation to help the audience buy into a monumental life change taking place over a long weekend.
Escaped convict Frank hijacks the fragile home life of Adele, a severely depressed single mom (Winslet) and her 15 year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) struggling with feelings of abandonment. The audience is asked to believe that the romance between Frank and Adele is somehow natural, not stockholm’s syndrome.
Henry, who is our protagonist, bears the guilt of failure his father is too cowardly to accept. The parallels between Frank’s physical imprisonment and Adele’s psychological and emotional burdens are obvious, though never personally explored. The suburban setting seems appropriate and helps set the stage for each of the characters to expose the others’ internal conflicts, while they depend on each to be free of their past guilt or shame. But all this is talked-around more than shown.
It’s just not clear in the movie exactly what the point of all this is. This is the result of the shortened timeline incurred by the fact that Frank is using this family to hide from authorities until he can escape. Is Frank truly innocent, just the man Henry and Adele need? Or is he manipulating them? The elephant in the room is never addressed, and the movie spends the bulk of its time avoiding this tension by creating romanticized comfort-food scenes. In short, the story treats its own dramatic tension as a burden, rather than a means of developing its own characters to the full potential they clearly posses.
It wasn’t that the movie was terrible, rather unfinished. It seems as though it has something personal to convey, and just hadn’t the words for it… yet. It often comes close, but never gets over the problem of having a love story develop out of thin air. If, for example, Frank had been introduced as a man who had served his time but was a social outcast who never had the opportunity to prove his innocence, we might have something.
Having said that, Adele’s past is gradually revealed. But this is done through flashbacks, and the crucial elements that might have explained her love for her captor are introduced late. By this time, the audience has assumed Adele’s motives are never going to be made clear. That’s a shame, a scene or two could have revealed enough of her painful past to clue in the audience and narration could have been skipped altogether.
Labor Day asks its audience to do too much heavy lifting in the absence of clear personal motives for its very well-played characters. It could have been great, but turns out mediocre.