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Plugged In Rating
Content Caution
MPAA Rating
Credits
Genre
Drama, Romance, Mystery/Suspense
Cast
Kate Winslet as Adele; Josh Brolin as Frank; Gattlin Griffith as Henry; Tobey Maguire as Adult Henry; Tom Lipinski as Young Frank; Maika Monroe as Mandy; Clark Gregg as Gerald; James Van Der Beek as Officer Treadwell; Brooke Smith as Evelyn
Director
Jason Reitman (Young Adult, Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You for Smoking)
Distributor
Paramount Pictures
In Theaters
January 31, 2014
On Video
April 29, 2014
Reviewer
Paul Asay
Labor Day

Labor Day

It'd be nice to have a man around the house.

Adele never says so. But she doesn't need to. She wears her loneliness like a shawl, draped around her shoulders like so much sadness. Ever since her husband ran off with his secretary and set up house on the other side of town, Adele's been alone. She hovers around her dilapidated house like a flesh-and-blood ghost, watching as the paint flakes off, listening as the furnace huffs and wheezes, looking through the window at the jungle that is her yard. She never goes to town if she can help it, never drives unless she must. Her only real companion is Henry, her 13-year-old son. And there's only so much he can do.

Oh, he tries to make his mother happy, to help her forget her pain. He does most of the shopping and banking. He makes her breakfast in bed. One year he gave her a coupon book that declared himself a "Husband for a Day"—vouchers for shoulder rubs and odd jobs, even for a movie date. But while he may know some of what a husband's supposed to do, he doesn't know what a husband is. What the relationship really means.

And the truth is, Henry could use a man around the house too. He sees his father still, sharing Sunday dinners with that other family. But there's no one at home to throw a baseball with. No one to teach him what fathers are supposed to teach. And so he and his mother tick off the days, together in isolation. The grass grows. The paint flakes. The loneliness settles.

But Henry's growing like the grass outside, and he needs bigger pants. The only way to get them is to climb into the station wagon and go to the big-box store across town. Mother and son steel themselves for the journey, planning to get what they need and get back home.

While Adele looks for pants and Henry scans the comics, a man—a bloodstain on his shirt and a limp in his stride—asks for a ride. A ride, it turns out, to their house. He's hurt, he says. He needs somewhere to rest for a couple of hours. Then he'll be on his way.

He grabs the back of Henry's neck with his strong hand—half friendly gesture, half threat. "Frankly," he says, "This needs to happen."

It'd be nice to have a man around the house, sure. But what kind of man is this?

[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

Note that there are mitigating considerations for pretty much everything I'm about to jot down as being positive—like the fact that the guy's a convicted murderer, and newly escaped from prison at that. Televisions are awash in warnings, calling him dangerous and desperate, and the better part of wisdom would call for Adele and Henry to get far away from him as soon as they possibly could.

"I've never intentionally hurt anyone in my life," Frank tells Adele and Henry, and the way he acts—treating them with a strange sensitivity—it's easy to believe. He briefly ties them up, but only to protect them from being charged with harboring a fugitive. (That way, he tells them, they can say he tied them up and not have to lie about it.) Frank makes the family chili—spooning it out for Adele while she's still restrained, and blowing on each bite so as not to burn her mouth. He promises he will demand nothing more from her than a place to stay. And that night (after untying her) he sleeps chastely on the couch.

Then he starts fixing things: the car, the squeaky door, the wheezy furnace. He washes and waxes the floor. He teaches Henry how to throw a ball and gives them both lessons on how to bake a pie. And when he tells them both that it's time for him to split, they look for excuses that might make him stay.

Prison escape notwithstanding, Frank is surprisingly honest, and he says telling the truth is a big thing for him (though Adele and Henry lie to protect him). Even his escape was facilitated by an act of truth: He apparently told his guard that if the man left the room they were in, he was going to jump out the window and escape. The guard laughed and left. "Nothing misleads people like the truth," Frank says.

After a few days, the police do come for Frank. And while Adele wants to join him and make a run for it, Frank—presumably in part to keep her and Henry safe—decides to give himself up. "I'd take 20 more years to just have another three days with you," he tells Adele. He surrenders to authorities and is taken back to prison, with new charges of kidnapping tacked on. Years later, when Frank is about to be released, he writes Henry (now grown and with a family of his own) and asks permission to see Adele. The last image we see in the movie is them walking away, older, but still holding each other tight.

Sexual Content

While there's little explicit sexuality in Labor Day, the story's sensuality is impossible to escape. We see it in the way Frank touches Adele's wrists and feet when he's tying her up, in how they make a pie together, in the way he teaches her how to hold a baseball bat and swing. They dance together. Frank goes shirtless at one point, and Adele's garb is sometimes both tight and revealing.

And Frank and Adele's relationship does turn sexual, presumably. Henry hears the two of them in Adele's bedroom, making ... noises. Henry tells us that the word "rhythm" comes to mind as he listens to them—a word laced with all sorts of sexual meaning. Also, in flashback, we see a woman fumble with a man's belt buckle in an effort to get his pants off. There's a brief scene in which sexual motions are seen (with clothes mostly intact), and a couple makes out in the back of a pickup truck.

All this is set alongside 13-year-old Henry's developing adolescence. Adults talk to him about the birds and the bees. And he remembers eyeing the bra strap of the girl in front of him in class. He fantasizes about her turning around and asking what he'd like to do—and then the two of them in a lake, apparently naked. (We see them from the shoulders up, her throwing her arms around him.) He's drawn to the eyes staring at him from women's magazines and imagines that one winks at him.

Henry later meets a girl who does give him his first kiss. She also tells him that sex messes with people's minds, and that if Henry's mom is having sex with this new guy, they'll probably try to sideline Henry eventually. She says a good way to get rid of the stranger is to accuse him of "touching." People make references to incest, pregnancy resulting from casual sex, and being gay.

Violent Content

Angry over being cheated on, Frank pushes a woman—accidentally killing her when her head strikes a radiator. It's also suggested that the woman's baby drowned, apparently accidentally, in an overflowing bathtub (a murder Frank is also charged with). Adele suffers a series of miscarriages. We see her on the toilet (knees and feet visible); blood runs down her leg. She also delivers a stillborn baby.

A woman meanly slaps her disabled son. Henry imagines being involved in a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like shootout—lying on the floor of a car while bullets blow out the windows around him. The bloodstain on Frank's shirt came from an appendectomy; we see Adele uncover the incision. He's also injured his leg, and we see that wound too.

Crude or Profane Language

One abuse of Jesus' name; one of God's. One exclamation of "d‑‑n."

Drug and Alcohol Content

We catch a glimpse of characters smoking and drinking beer.

Other Negative Elements

Henry and his half-brother treat their father/stepfather disrespectfully. Frank swipes a jacket and hat from a store to make a getaway.

Conclusion

Labor Day is an odd and oddly disturbing love story based on a book by Joyce Maynard. It is certainly not a tale to be taken as aspirational. No matter how lonely you might be, should you encounter an escaped felon it's best to tell the authorities, not play baseball and bake pies with the guy. Even if he does seem so nice.

But trapped within its own ethos as it is, this love story still manages to be surprisingly sweet and curiously affirming of family.

Both Adele and Henry wanted—no, needed—a man around the house. Why? Because men—husbands and fathers—are integral parts of families. Despite the many, many single moms out there who make a good go of things for themselves and their kids, and despite the determined kids who fashion something great out of their lives by pretty much raising themselves at times, these scenarios are not optimal. An ideal family, as God created it, boasts a man and a woman at the fore. Wives need husbands. Kids need fathers. It works that way. And Labor Day shows that.

No, Frank is not a husband or father in a legal or even rational sense. And yet he fills both those roles well in the moments he "abducts"—giving Henry the love and affirmation he so longed for, Adele the companionship she missed and the pillar of strength she needed. Without Frank, they were a mess. With him, they can make it. As Adele and Frank contemplate running off together, and Adele tells him that because of her miscarriages she can never give him a family—he tells her that she already has.

Of course this happy situation does not come without cautions. The already-stated glamorization of hooking up with an escaped con, Frank and Adele's "intimate companionship" falling outside the bounds of marriage, and Henry's sexual fantasies all bring discomfort to a moving movie experience.

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