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Cinema Signal: A creative romance, a coming-of-age story, a perfectly acted piece. Go! MOBILE version |
. "Labor Day"

With two actors who wouldn't know how to make a false move or deliver a dishonest line, and a director whose skill with actresses is notable, "Labor Day" is a literate and emotional study in basic human needs. A soft, exquisitely tonal story that could have unleashed torrents of sentimentality, the film has too much to say about the power of emotion to take that track. It is hard-edged with credibility and uniqueness for the off-beat romance and coming-of-age story that it is.

Adapted by director Jason Reitman ( "Juno") from single-mom Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel set in a small New England town, we see the events through the pubescent eyes of 13-year old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who has been living with his mother since the divorce and narrates from a child's perspective.

He explains Adele's (Kate Winslet, "Contagion") reclusive life from the shock of divorce she just hasn't gotten over yet. A beautiful woman, the cause of her situation is the excruciating experience of trying to make another child with her ex through a series of tragic outcomes of pregnancy and a husband (Clark Gregg) who chose to escape the sad string of miscarriages by remarrying and taking up residence within walking distance of Adele's run-down abode.

Contrasting against his cowardly callousness, Adele, still fine looking, remains traumatized and withdrawn. If not for her son, who is dutiful and understanding beyond his years, this woman would remain in a fog of pain forever.

And, then, a totally unpredictable thing happens.

She's shopping with Henry for the new school year, which starts tomorrow, when a man presents himself before them with blood seeping above one ear. Handsome, strong and in dire need of a hideout, medical treatment and food, he's not asking. He intimidates Adele into taking him home with her and Henry.

The news that he's Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a wanted convict who escaped from the local hospital is soon be trumpeted on every TV station -- but the danger he poses is completely misaligned with who he is. Filling the house with his charismatic energy, he does what he must in order to control the situation, but with a visible reluctance, even apology, that is demonstrated in inventive, creative ways.

After tying Adele to a kitchen chair (with her silk scarves) and explaining that it's to protect them from blame should the police find him there (he uses tape to tie Henry down), he then sets about to make dinner with ingredients he finds in the fridge and cupboard, with all indications that he is or has been a chef.

What a guy to be in the clutches of.

Hand feeding the bound Adele, teaching Henry to swing a baseball bat and a host of fatherly acts, the fugitive endears himself to his two captives and removes all barriers of fear and mistrust. Which comes to a point that the last thing in the world that this small family would want is for this man to leave!

The developments slowly, meaningfully, is a process of discovery and mutual caring, and the discovery that the stranger has rechanelled their assumptions and changed their lives. The viscerally depressed ex-wife, hesitantly opens up to the woman that she is, and that is something the escapee has held dear from the start. Henry is soaking up all the knowledge and decency the man shows him including, significantly, how to bake an apple pie.

A difficult man to accept kindness, when Adele tries to dress Frank's wound he rebuffed her effort claiming to be "all right.: "You know," she says. Eventually you're going to have to accept someone else wanting to help you."

Continuously intercut with the main thread of the story are flashbacks to his earlier years that, to great excess, explain what happened to make him a convicted man and, today, an injured escapee.

The casting of Winslet and Brolin is sensitive genius. They dig into their slowly evolving, complex characters so deeply it will leave marks in the chest area. Her initial fears and apprehension turning into trust and affection playing on Winslet's face like a sonata on a Stradivarius, with breadth and heart. Her disabling depression has turned into something else entirely. Adele has something to live for even as it creates a tension over whether it's attainable.

The escaped convict's manly vulnerability is undertaken by Brolin as if it's the most expressive and brilliantly gentle piece of material he's ever done -- and this is the man who played the central character in the film masterpiece, "No Country For Old Men!" And, well it might be. The temperate manner and critical sensitivity with which he behaves with his captives, especially knowing the affect he is having on them, playing the captor we can only wish we had, is the stuff awards are made from.

Henry, a teenager who knows a little something about sex -- in a theoretical sense -- is taking a life course in adulthood.

This playing of unimaginable course changes and decision-making during a weekend in the crosshairs of life or death, of maturity and the need for meaningful contact, is a spellbinding piece of literary art and a fresh take on movie romance. Which is also to say that the movie is a fine rendering of a place in time with complex individuals whom the actors make real, eloquent and unforgettable.

What they and director Jason Reitman captured here and conveyed to us in a framework of psychological, gut-level suspense is something rare and exquisite.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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