Critics dismissed “Labor Day,” a film based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, as a deranged Nicholas Sparks movie. Indeed, the movieresembles a hybrid of a true-crime and romance. How else could one describe a plot where a depressed, middle-aged single mother rescues an escaped convict who in return rescues her from a life of quiet desperation?
Looking past the far-fetched plot, though, one finds complex characters worthy of closer examination. This isn't the first time director and writer Jason Reitman has presented such characters to his audience. Previous films like “Young Adult” (2011) and “Up in the Air” (2009) featured cryptic protagonists, and Labor Dayfollows that pattern.
Self-conscious and broken, Adele lives with her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), in a rundown house on the edge of a small town. One immediately feels the weight of Adele’s depression as the movie opens. In a voiceover, the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) explains, “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself. . . . I could feel her loneliness and longing before I had a name for it.”
Kate Winslet's portrayal of the broken-hearted mother convinces audiences that the world she lives in is a threatening place. There is a scene where Henry directs his mother away from a pregnant woman, an allusion to the numerous miscarriages Adele has suffered over the years. Due to depression, a once-vibrant woman is a recluse, a prisoner in her own home.
But though she hates leaving her house, Adele puts on a brave face and ventures out to purchase necessities for her son at the local store. While she’s there, an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) asks her for help, his strong grip on Henry’s shoulder forcing her to agree. Instinctively, Adele knows the man is dangerous, but she lacks the strength and gumption to seek help. Submitting to his request, she takes him home.
The first man to inhabit the house in years, Frank casts a spell on Adele and Henry. Of course, Adele is apprehensive and cautious at first, but when the convicted murderer fixes the car, cooks dinner, and teaches Henry how to throw a curveball, she warms to him. Frank quickly becomes the man of the house, momentarily satisfying Henry's deep need for a father figure.
The difference between Henry's distant, distracted father (Clark Gregg) and the attentive stranger is sharp. Henry’s inability to locate certain tools suggests a lack of time working on cars with his father, a lack of time learning masculine chores. Frank begins teaching Henry the basics, engaging him in a sacred rite of manhood. While changing a tire, Frank says, “I’ll tell you now, you don’t want to wait to learn how to fix it. Not if you’ve got some lady in the seat beside you when it happens.” They both smile at each other and continue working on the car. The next day, Henry eats dinner with his father, who awkwardly hints about a “man to man” talk. Quickly, Henry changes the subject.
Frank also satisfies Adele's deep need for a knight in shining armor. Embodying the lyrics of the old Gershwin song, Adele desperately wants someone to watch over her, and Frank fits the bill. Like a parched and withered plant that recovers after proper care, Adele changes. She wears a flattering dress, fixes her hair. She dances with Frank, and succumbs to his physical advances.
Just when it seems that Frank is merely a talented con artist and Adele is the most desperate woman ever, Frank’s past is revealed, leaving Adele and the audience to question his assumed guilt. As he explains to Adele, “I never intentionally hurt anyone.” Convinced of his goodness, she asks him to stay. By staying with Adele, Frank hopes not only to escape prison, but escape his broken past as well.
I found these characters all too human, exhibiting the hunger that people have for meaningful relationships and a fresh start. Anyone who has experienced the depression that comes with deep loss would empathize with them. I found myself rooting for them, hoping to see them both break free from their past and start a new life.
Yet even though the ending was redemptive, I found the film ultimately lacking, due to a hard-to-swallow premise. Can one long weekend truly make such a difference in the lives of three people? It doesn’t seem believable that Frank and Adele could fall in love so quickly (even considering his lack of female companionship during his 18-year stay in prison). Instead of being convinced of Frank and Adele’s great love story, I was convinced only of his desire to return to life before the accident. With Adele, he reenacts a moment he experienced with his first love, Mandy. As Frank bakes a pie with Adele, it seems as though he is merely projecting that first love onto a stranger, attempting to relive the past, hoping he can keep himself from making the same mistake twice.
Franks says to Adele, “I came to save you. . . . That’s exactly what I’m going to do.” But as much as Adele believes Frank is the key to her salvation, he is just a man, finite and limited. Salvation is too much to ask of him. Her first husband couldn't deal with the weight of such pressure, and one wonders if Adele’s relationship with Frank could possibly live up to her expectations or if it would end the same way as her relationship with Henry’s father.
“Labor Day” is not simply a movie about a desperate woman. This film is a reminder that all of us, even criminals, are complex human beings, created in God’s image and yet flawed, looking for restoration and salvation any way we can find it—in the arms of someone else, in the hope of someone else. It's a reminder of the hurt we’ve experienced in our past, that we have all been broken by the Fall to various degrees. The good news for Christians is that we know the One who fixes broken things, the One who has promised to make all things new. Because of Him, we do not have to be prisoners of our past or of our pain.
Image copyright Paramount Pictures. “Labor Day” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence, and sexuality. Parents should be aware of the adult content.
Ashley Chandler, a graduate of Columbia International University and St. John's College, teaches, reads, and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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