It’s the end of summer in New England, and the heat hasn’t broken yet. This might account for the fever-dream mood of “Labor Day,” a new film with an implausible premise but a passionate commitment to its anxious, sidelined characters.
Adapted by director Jason Reitman from a novel by Joyce Maynard, this story has a hook that sounds like it came from an old film noir. Divorced and depressed Adele (Kate Winslet) is out for a rare shopping trip with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who’s about to begin seventh grade. They are accosted by an injured man, Frank (Josh Brolin), who vaguely threatens them if they don’t shelter him until nightfall.
He’s an escaped prisoner. While recovering from an appendectomy, he jumped out of a hospital window and hobbled his way into the path of Adele and Henry. Now he has to heal up, and the single nightfall turns into a few days in a row in Adele’s dowdy house.
It probably won’t surprise you that Frank might fulfill a need in these two lonely people. So instead of trying to surprise you, “Labor Day” does nicely by creating a sweltering setting for a group of frail people and creating little moments of emotion from the situation.
Such a strong emotional core is something new from Reitman, whose previous films leaned heavily on up-to-date irony (“Juno” and “Up in the Air”) or satire (“Thank You for Smoking”).
At times “Labor Day” could even hold back a little — there’s a pie-making sequence that flirts with unintentional comedy — but I liked its decision to play it serious.
With Kate Winslet and her unerring ability to find the core of a character, Reitman is halfway there already. She can do more with just sitting and staring — something Adele does from time to time — than most actors can with a page of tortured speechifying.
Brolin’s tendency to play everything head-on suits his character here, and Griffith gives a believable, low-key performance. The situation ought to be less than credible, but the interplay between these people puts it across.
It’s set in the 1980s, and is narrated by an adult Henry (Tobey Maguire). This helps explain the story as a memory piece (maybe it’s just Henry’s nostalgic version of the event we’re watching), although it leads to an epilog that I’m not sure the film actually needs. Sometimes it’s better to leave the imagining of “what happened next” in the audience’s mind.
Still, for a movie that got dismissed when it played in festivals last fall and didn’t really figure in the awards season (Winslet got a Golden Globe nomination), “Labor Day” is better than standard fare.
It shouldn’t work — but for a while you might believe it does.
“Labor Day” (three stars)
An escaped prisoner (Josh Brolin) holds a depressed single mom (Kate Winslet) and her son hostage for a few days, as he lies low. The sweltering small town tale isn’t too plausible, but director Jason Reitman plays it with passionate commitment, and the film really does create a strong fever-dream mood.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood 7, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Sundance, Woodinville.