There have been complaints that there are not enough films that have decent lead roles for women. There are those that say that Hollywood does not make enough movies for women. Then when they do, critics tend to dismiss them as “Lifetime” movies (a term that is dismissive because of the cable channel that churns out generic movies for women). It seems far easier to accept excessive violence or male-oriented films with sexual content. If a movie tries to legitimately capture real situations from a woman’s point of view, it can be patronizingly categorized as pap and schmaltz.
I see an awful lot of movies, and what disappoints me most about many of them is the insincerity of the experience. We get to see a lot of violent movies and a lot of funny movies, and if they seem halfhearted, I shrug it off as the norm. If I see romantic comedies that seem like weak rip-offs of movies made years ago, I assume they just don’t know how to make them anymore, but an even rarer commodity is a serious romantic movie that works. Today that usually means it has to be laced with cynicism and anger.
Labor Day is an honest attempt to make a movie that is serious and heartfelt. Today that is out of fashion. There have been many of these movies over the years, but today we only see Nicholas Sparks movies or clones of Nicholas Sparks.
Kate Winslet is a brilliant actress, and she gives a great performance of a woman paralyzed by a painful past. Josh Brolin is an escaped convict who is also revealed to be a tortured soul yearning to heal the pain in his past. The two are brought together, and in a short time come to feel that they have hope again.
The film plays out with a series of flashbacks outlining their past lives while the present day situation slowly plays itself out. The story of the mother and son is also a large part of the story. The son feels like he must protect his mother and console her because of her disabling depression. The hostage situation then puts their relationship in a new light.
The story is both frightening and sad. When the romance begins to blossom between the convict and his captive, it is because from the beginning the convict has leavened his intimidation with a gentle and kind manner. Her depression has almost been relieved by the tension. She has been shaken out of a stupor.
The eventual resolution of the film allows Tobey Maguire to play the young son years later.
The pie-making scene has gotten the most attention. It is both instructional and erotic and a little silly. I enjoyed it. If anything, the happiness conveyed in a scene like that makes some of the darker, sadder moments more endurable. Overall, the film is imbued with tension and sadness.
The book that the film is based on is written by Joyce Maynard, who has had an unusual career as a writer and celebrity. She started out as a precocious teen who wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine ( An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life) as a voice of a generation, then became the paramour of the legendary writer J.D. Salinger after her wrote her a letter. She also wrote a book about those years which caused considerable controversy. Another of her books, To Die For, was made into a film with Nicole Kidman.
The director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) has given us edgy and relevant films for many years now. His resume includes Juno, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, and Young Adult. The story here doesn’t have that cynical edge that the other films had. Labor Day is a story that takes place in 1987 in a small town about a more traditional time and place than the other films. Some may want to question his decision to turn away from a certain style that has been very successful. I think Labor Day is a very sincere and intelligent attempt. It may not be perfect, but it is the kind of movie that doesn’t come along often. We need to make more films for women and not more hyper-violent and uber-sexist movies.