Set in 1987 over the course of a long, hot weekend, Labor Day tells the melodramatic tale of a socially stunted woman, Adele (Kate Winslet), whose life, and that of her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), is changed irrevocably when she takes in escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin). No, it’s not so much the eventual notoriety she gains, but the ability to be bowled over by a hot dude who, incidentally, fixes everything that’s broken—and teaches Henry to throw a baseball. The convict cooks and bakes like the next Food Network star. What’s not to love?
Well, that would be the movie, a ponderous series of longing glances and feelings of impending disaster. Winslet gives Adele the right amount of nervous tics, right down to the shaking hands that can barely keep the station wagon on the road; it’s totally understandable that her breasts would heave when Frank puts his arms around her to demonstrate just the right approach to making pie crust. That this threesome can become such an ideal, albeit unorthodox, family in just a few short scenes removes any sense of danger that Frank—a convicted murderer with, of course, a convenient explanatory backstory—should inject into the proceedings. That Adele, so shell-shocked by life, could so readily fall in love with her captor, doesn’t sit right.
The movie has a distinct look, one that makes us remember that melancholy last weekend before school starts. Despite the clunkiness of the narrative, the performances are earnest and good. Particularly compelling is Griffith, who captures just the right quality of pubescent awkwardness, keen wit and social loneliness that comes with having a parent who is emotionally damaged. The movie is peppered with flashbacks, which detract from whatever momentum it might have had, even as they make clear that, as Frank declares, nothing is ever as it seems. It’s an odd period piece that, as has been noted elsewhere, feels like a Nicholas Sparks story. While that’s not necessarily a horrible thing, it doesn’t make it awards-caliber, either.