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‘Labor Day’: Great acting, graceful storytelling, plus pie

‘LABOR DAY’ ★★★1⁄2

Adele | Kate Winslet

Frank | Josh Brolin

Henry | Gattlin Griffith

Adult Henry | Tobey Maguire

Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by
Jason Reitman, based on a novel by Joyce Maynard. Running time: 1 hour and 51 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality). Opens Jan. 31 at local theaters.

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Updated: March 3, 2014 3:18PM



It’s the pie scene. If you buy into the baking sequence in “Labor Day,” if you think Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet’s characters are doing something of peach-pie equivalence to the pottery scene in “Ghost,” you’re hooked on a story that requires a fairly serious leap of faith.

If you’re rolling your eyes when they get to the pie scene, you’re probably ready to head for the exits.

“Labor Day” is one of those films sure to divide audiences and critics. Either you go with the almost dreamlike, sometimes logic-defying scenario, or you don’t. I was captivated from the opening sequence and found myself immersed in the first film of 2014 that truly resonated with me.

Based on Joyce Maynard’s novel and set in 1987, “Labor Day” is told from the viewpoint of a young man named Henry (voiced by Tobey Maguire) looking back on a life-defining weekend when he was just 13 years old. (Young Henry is played by Gattlin Griffith, who is up to the task of sharing scenes with two great, grown-up film stars.)

Kate Winslet is Henry’s mother, Adele, who is nearly suffocating under the weight of a constant and paralyzing depression that was brought about by a family tragedy. Henry’s father (Clark Gregg), who was once deeply in love with Adele but was unable to cope with her seemingly endless sadness, left and remarried, staying in the small New Hampshire town where everybody seems to know everybody’s business.

Dad keeps trying to get Henry to move in with him and the new family, but Henry wouldn’t dream of abandoning his mother. He is her only reason for getting out of bed in the morning. That Adele doesn’t seem to realize she’s stealing Henry’s youth by requiring his constant presence in the house tells us how far gone she is.

About once a month, Adele squelches her agoraphobia just long enough to drive Henry to the local mall so they can stock up on food and other supplies. Henry escapes his mother’s tether just far enough to wander into another section of the store — and that leads to a chance encounter with a man who says he’d like Henry’s help.

That man is Frank.

In the first of many sequences that will stretch plausibility, Adele and Henry wind up giving a ride to Frank, who speaks like a gentleman in polite, measured tones but gives off a menacing vibe. (That Frank is seeping blood from a recently sustained injury doesn’t help his cause.)

It is no great spoiler to reveal Frank is a wanted man. This is what “Labor Day” is about. Over the course of a sun-dappled holiday weekend, as the police engage in a furious manhunt for the fugitive they consider to be extremely dangerous and the local news stations warn everyone to be on the lookout, Frank hides out at Adele’s ramshackle house, becoming an instant father figure to Henry while rekindling feelings in Adele she thought were long dead.

In perfectly doled-out flashback snippets, we learn the circumstances of the crime of which Frank was convicted. In the Labor Day weekend scenes, Frank seems like a candidate for the Best Possible Stepdad Ever. He tunes up the car, he fixes things around the house, he gives Henry some baseball pointers, he cooks terrific meals and he even teaches Adele how to bake an amazing pie.

But every now and again reality comes knocking, sometimes literally, and Frank shifts into survival mode.

(The recent period piece is such a great device for storytelling. If “Labor Day” were set in 2014, in a world of global positioning systems, the Internet, texting and modern tracking technology, Frank probably never makes it to Adele’s house before he’s caught. In the mid-1980s, when you got your information from the nightly news and the next day’s newspaper and police were posting “Wanted” flyers on front-yard trees, it’s a different story.)

In lesser hands, “Labor Day” could have played like an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, what with the dark secrets and the us-against-the-world love affair. But writer-director Jason Reitman (“Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air”) is too skilled a filmmaker to let the sentiment overpower the story. There’s just enough edge to keep us guessing about Frank and his true motivations.

Brolin gives one of his best performances as Frank. We believe this guy is capable of shocking violence — but we also believe he just might be a wronged man with sincere intentions.

Winslet hits some great notes as Adele. We wouldn’t buy the premise of a well-adjusted woman falling so hard and so quickly for a fugitive, no matter how dashing — but someone in Adele’s fragile state just might risk everything for a chance at happiness.

“Labor Day” is an admittedly strange hybrid. Rarely have I seen such outrageous plot points executed with such lovely grace.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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