Sometimes the past trips you up. It certainly does Frank, the escaped con played by Josh Brolin in Jason Reitman’s new drama, “Labor Day.”
It definitely unravels Adele, the reclusive single mother Kate Winslet makes so fragile. It is already a defining factor for 13-year-old Henry, played by newcomer Gattlin Griffith, by the time Frank comes into their lives.
What I didn’t anticipate is the way the past might trip up the filmmaker. “Labor Day” is only Reitman’s fifth movie, but one of the distinguishing features in his films — from 2006’s “Thank You for Smoking” through “Juno” in 2007, “Up in the Air” in 2009 and 2011’s “Young Adult” — is how carefully constructed they are.
The dialogue may be loose, the characters quite frequently a mess, but the progression of the film from beginning to end, and the narrative links, are always solid. They’ve all drawn critical attention, with “Juno” and “Up in the Air” earning Reitman four Oscar nominations, two for directing, one for writing and another for best picture.
With “Labor Day,” he stumbles.
Though the characters have the kind of flaws Reitman is at ease exploring, the film is a departure in several ways. Instead of the contemporary vibe he captured so effortlessly before, “Labor Day” is set in a small New Hampshire town circa 1987 and carries the ethos of a period piece. Then there is the matter of the past, which haunts the film.
The creative team does its part to set the tone. Cinematography is handled by Eric Steelberg, who has worked with the director from the beginning, with frequent collaborators Steve Saklad on production design and Danny Glicker on costumes. And in a year of excellent movie scores, British composer Rolfe Kent contributes another one.
What unfolds over the long, hot holiday weekend is beautifully told and beautifully acted by Winslet, Brolin and Griffith. Tobey Maguire as narrator and in a cameo as a grown-up Henry adds another nice touch. It is the flashbacks that are a muddle.
“Labor Day” is based on the bestselling novel by Joyce Maynard, a deceptively slim volume graced by extremely complicated characters. All have deeply fraught histories important in explaining how love blooms between a cautious mother and the convict holding her hostage. While Maynard so effectively tossed in scraps here and there, they are more problematic on screen. Visual memory fragments are dropped in to explain how a series of miscarriages scarred Adele and a cheating wife led to Frank’s murder charge.
The difficulty is the gauzy, half-dreamlike style of them — seductive to look at but more confusing than clarifying. It doesn’t help that Winslet plays her younger self, while Tom Lipinski steps in to portray Frank as a young man. There is no issue with Lipinski’s performance; he has a brooding sensibility that is a good match for Brolin’s. But it is still hard to follow the narrative thread without having read the book.
Yet if you can get past the past, which I recommend, what is left is a lovely, intimate film about longing and love. It begins at a Pricemart, exactly the kind of low-cost superstore the name implies, when Frank asks Henry for help. The blood on his scalp and the limp make it clear he is a wounded man. Of course, not all of his wounds are visible.
Soon Adele is driving Frank and Henry back home. She puts up a little resistance, but as the film has already made clear, most of her emotional energy was expended merely getting out of the house. The real world holds too many painful reminders.
The film finds its footing as the weekend progresses and the temperature and tension — outside and in — rise. There is the ever-present fear that Frank will be found. And there are other tight spots to be navigated: the neighbor who drops by unexpectedly, a friend who needs Adele to watch her disabled son for a day and Henry’s flirtation with Eleanor (an excellent Brighid Fleming), the new girl in town messing with his mind and emerging libido.
The emotional center of the film is found in the insular world of Adele’s house as the trio fall in love — with the idea of family and one another. This is when the reading between the lines the film requires is wrought in captivating ways.
The gentleness between characters is surprisingly touching; it makes the pain of a harsh remark cut more deeply. The moments feel simple but are filled with complexities — the way tossing a baseball can bond a man and a boy, or making a pie together can express love and desire. The emotional and sexual interplay between Adele and Frank captures the idea of need with a sensitivity and insight that is rare on screen — a reminder of how good Reitman can be when he gets it right.