An Indie Hipster Goes Old Hollywood: Labor Day 

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Labor Day
Directed by Jason Reitman

This intimate domestic drama was shunted into 2014 following a one-week 2013 awards-qualifying run that also served as a tacit admittance that qualification would probably be the closest it would come to those awards. But maybe it’s not such a bad movie to see nursing a prestige hangover. That’s not to say director Reitman goes for the January-exploitation angle when escaped and wounded prisoner Frank (Josh Brolin) approaches lonely housewife Adele (Kate Winslet) and her young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) for help. It’s not quite a home-invasion: he insists on laying low with this small, fractured family, but from there he reveals unexpected tenderness. Frank, of all people, seems capable of calming the nervous tremble that seems to define much of Adele’s outside-averse life.

Described on paper—or shown in a movie trailer—this might sound like a ludicrous Stockholm romance. But Reitman, adapting a novel by Joyce Maynard, employs his undersung ability to tune into adolescent confusion (be it within the snark of Juno or the arrested development of Young Adult) by sticking mostly to Henry’s point of view, accentuating uncertainty at every turn. Frank isn’t traditionally villainous, but the movie maintains an air of menace, especially seen through Henry’s eyes; Frank needn’t be a monster for the whole situation to fall apart. The movie’s accompanying undercurrent of sadness follows its plot turns but keeps flowing.

Brolin and Winslet, meanwhile, defuse the movie’s weirdest, most questionable romantic gestures (pie-making for Adele, crash courses in manly activities for Henry) with complementary styles of underplaying: she with worried eyes, he with unflagging composure. Griffith is good, too, staying quiet without resorting to phony indie-kid deadpan. The very final stretch feels regrettably like, well, a chunk of novel hastily condensed into a Tobey Maguire-starring coda. But most of the movie has the detail of an elegantly expanded short story. It also serves as a reminder that Reitman is more Old Hollywood craftsman than hipster auteur. Labor Day is his most old-fashioned movie yet.

Opens January 31

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