In the midst of watching Josh Brolin softly grip Kate Winslet’s ankle to tie her to a chair, I decided I loved Labor Day. Even despite the glaringly obvious pitfalls – no, you wouldn’t just allow a guy with a bullet wound to his stomach and blood all over his face into your house, especially after you found out he was previously convicted for murder without raising the alarm. (Shhhh, never mind that now.) But it really wasn’t until the movie ended that I realised how much I could relate to the story. I’ve never been approached by an escaped prisoner in a department store, nor have I ever housed a fugutive for a week in my home. No, that’s not how I connected to it.
I’ve never been walking down the street on my way home from my Dad’s place when Officer James van der Beek (lollllll that guy never stops being Dawson) stops to give me a ride home. That’s never happened either. I never got hit on by a 13-year old girl with an eating disorder and too much eyeliner, and I never sat in a library researching Canadian islands. I’ve also never made peach pie, or had to hear family members in the middle of sexytimes in the room next to me (thank god.)
I’ve never been married, never been divorced, nor have I had a baby or lost one. And though I know what it feels like to know there’s a significant possibility of never producing children (that’s a different post altogether), it wasn’t that either that suckerpunched me in the feels – though, by god, the scene with the bathtub; help me jesus.
It wasn’t even the tug of finding love in the strangest of situations that made me weep. What hit me when the credits rolled was that the mother-child relationship in this film mirrored my own.
But it didn’t hit me in the beginning when Henry is talking about the time he made his mother a coupon booklet that he called “Husband for a Day”, filled with coupons for things like fixing the gutters, doing the dishes, even taking her out for date nights. (Before you get carried away – there’s nothing perverse about this scene, it’s merely a look at the kind of protection and care a son wants to provide for his single, increasingly lonely and emotionally fractured mother. The kind of love that signifies you would do anything to make her happy.) But I didn’t connect at this point.
I didn’t connect when he runs errands for her, because facing people in the world outside her bubble is something she cannot do. And I didn’t see the link when the flashbacks showed Adele giving Henry “the talk”, nor when he skulked protectively around the house after lights-out to make sure Frank was not stealing from, raping or murdering her.
Not once, throughout the whole film, did I realise that I was watching (an extreme version of) things I’ve experienced. Not for one second did I link my experiences as a husband-substitute with Henry’s. Not until the very last moments.
The backstories of both Frank and Adele are heart-shatteringly intense, and almost stiflingly so by the end of the film. And perhaps that is why the film has received such a critical caning. Perhaps it was to do with Brolin’s character being too perfect – rugged and masculine (and kinda fucking dangerous), and also gentle, compassionate and protective. Perhaps it was panned for it’s melodrama.
But I have a problem when people call something melodramatic. Because stories like Adele’s are true. They exist. I won’t give anything away, but her story entirely justifies the fragility of her character. The same goes for Frank. Sure, it’s not every day that you hear stories like the ones that they both have lived through. But that’s not to say that they don’t exist at all. So, I have a hard time dealing with the term melodrama being used to talk about experiences that just happen to not be frequent for most people.
I can see where the film lacks. Particularly in the character Eleanor, a new girl to the small town where Henry and his mother live. She is supposed to be the sounding board for Henry as he navigates his fears of Frank’s involvement in their lives. But really, all she spouts is boring, too-old-for-her-age theological dialogue that simply doesn’t work. Both because little Eleanor is reciting lines she wouldn’t actually ever say, and also because the fears Henry experiences aren’t really plausible considering what’s come before. The library scene is unfortunately clunky and definitely highlighted that Labor Day was not a perfect film. Eleanor was a significant weakness.
I can’t think of much else that I didn’t love, in spite of that, although some of the flashback scenes were a little tricky to keep up with. Sadly, I mixed up some of Frank’s flashbacks for Adele’s, and at one point I had myself thinking that the pair knew each other prior to the Labor Day weekend meeting. I actually sort of wish that had been the case, and it bothered me because I created this whole hugely enthralling scenario in my head about what was to come. But it never did. Oops!
For anybody with an intensely close relationship with their mothers, and especially for those who were of the single-mother-only-child lifestyle, this film will probably cut quite close to the bone. It will make you realise things about how much you truly feel for your mum, and about the possibility of her finding love again, which maybe you had never articulated to yourself before.
I think maybe Leonard Maltin’s review captures what works and doesn’t work for Labor Day, but what it lacks is a look at the powerful relationship between mother and her child. Because I think essentially, that is the heart of this film, and you only really know it until the last, gorgeous, heartbreaking line. But I’m not going to spoil it for you! Mwahahaha.