49th Chicago International Film Festival special premiere presentation

As a cinema aficionado and movie dork, there are two big takeaway reactions I got out of writer-director Jason Reitman's new film Labor Day after its advance screening at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival.  First, I love when a movie surprises an audience by defeating the predisposition of its advertised premise.  Movies often get hyped and marketed to be one thing when they are actually another.  Without even a first trailer making the rounds yet online or in theaters, Labor Day gets billed as a kidnapping-centered dramatic thriller that evokes the trappings we've seen from that scenario and subject matter played out in other films and bad Lifetime TV movies.  We expect dark, twisted, and sinister.  It's completely refreshing to see the actual film buck that plot predisposition by being an entirely deeper and affecting experience.  

Labor Day can't fit any usual description.  The best I can manage is calling it a combination of Bonnie and Clyde and The Bridges of Madison County.  How's that for bucking norms?

The second satisfying takeaway is watching a writer and director challenge himself to do or be something different than his popular resume.  Let me give you counterexamples to explain that.  When Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow of The Hurt Locker signed up for Zero Dark Thirty, we knew what tone was coming at it ended up matching.  You could say the same for Green Zone and Bourne series director Paul Greengrass and Captain Phillips.  The fact that Dennis Dugan seems content (and filthy rich) to make eight-and-counting crap comedies with Adam Sandler shows another level of complacency.  That said, it's fun to see a filmmaker leave their comfort zone and challenge themselves to avoid creative complacency.

Labor Day's Jason Reitman is known for his signature pair of popular and spirited comedies Juno and Up in the Air.  More discerning movie fans have seen a few more shades of his ability with Thank You For Smoking and Young Adult.  Labor Day is something completely and utterly different from his previous works in nearly every way, from framing and editing to subject matter and mood.  It's his most mature work to date and a positive new direction for one of the best young filmmakers working today.

Based on the bestseller from To Die For author Joyce Maynard, the strength of Labor Day  to hurdle the typical tawdry pitfalls of a Stockholm Syndrome retread is in the coming-of-age story perspective of a teen witness that fuels the story.  While the big names of Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and versatile veteran Josh Brolin headline the marketing, the real storyteller we witness the events through is Gattlin Griffin's Henry Wheeler.  Told in narration by his adult self (Tobey Maguire), we reflect with him on a fateful Labor Day weekend before the start of junior high in 1987 that will change he and his mother's life.

Adele Wheeler (Winslet) is a divorced and depressed woman living in near isolation to raise Henry on the outskirts of a small Massachusetts town.  Her agoraphobic disposition keeps her away from crowds and the public eye (for striking reasons we will learn later).  She has become very reliant on Henry as the "man of the house" and his affection for his mother's well-being welcomes that challenge.  He's the grocery and bank shopper of the household now, outside of weekends he spends with his father Gerald (Clark Gregg) while straining to embrace his new, "perfect" step-family.

During one shopping trip together in town, a mysteriously bleeding and injured man (Brolin) confronts Henry and persuades Adele to give him a ride out of town and a few hours to rest.  With piercing honesty, he reveals that he is an escaped convict who broke out of a hospital while being treated for an appendectomy.  The news reveals his identity to be Frank Chambers, a wanted man incarcerated for murder.  He promises them no harm, but the threat is real.

As he spends the day with the Wheelers, Frank's displays a calmness and gentleness that slowly puts them at ease.  At the same time, Frank takes as much pity for their loneliness and their hospitality.  Bonds begin to form as he helps around the house until he's healed and capable to make a run for a train.  Henry finds a substitute father-figure and Adele finds the first man to give her respectful attention in years.  We learn more and more, through Henry's eyes, what made Adele and Frank two broken people.  What starts as terrifying becomes unexpectedly endearing.

Labor Day does a masterful job focusing this story's perspective with Henry in mind.  The camera is almost always on him.  We are not privy to what happens with Frank and Adele when he is away, but a dose of voyeurism still exists.  We experience with him the growing affection and how justified it becomes.  Gattlin Griffin, known to most audiences from Clint Eastwood's Changeling, does a nice job giving us a savvy teen without cliched petulance.  His longing to please matches his mother's longing to forget.  He and Winslet display a wonderful chemistry together in several standout scenes.

As if we didn't already know, Kate Winslet is the modern Meryl Streep.  She is as much an artist with subtle nuance as Streep, with the potential to be her superior someday.  Winslet builds an amazing, unhinged character of depth and depression with looks over words.  The usually busier Josh Brolin, who gets to tear all kinds of stuff up soon in Spike Lee's remake of Old Boy next month, also comports himself extremely well in a much more internalized and introspective role than we are used to seeing from him.  It's his best work in years.  They too exhibit a tangible chemistry that is strong enough to make Labor Day as affecting as it needs to be to convince its audience.

Circling back to the beginning, the combination of those two satisfying takeaways makes Labor Day a stellar effort and an excellent film poised for the award season.  The trend from the Chicago International Film Festival continues, but Labor Day is one of the best films of 2013.  The narrative blossoms and develops in a most unexpected and sweet way, flipping the tendency to go dark with its subject matter.  Jason Reitman, who I felt stumbled a little with Young Adult two years ago, asserts himself with outstanding writing and directing.  He finds the right tone to pull off this story's glowing evolution from fearful to tearful.  Seek this film out when it finally hits national theaters in January.

LESSON #1: THE WAKE DEPRESSION CREATES IN A HOUSEHOLD-- Adele's depression is like an anchor that pulls her family down.  The losses in her life lead to her divorce, her phobias, Henry's introverted disposition, and his resistance to his father's new family.  The depression and these behaviors show the fragile state of this disjointed family.

LESSON #2: THE HELPFULNESS OF HAVING A MAN AROUND-- That fragile state of something being missing for Adele and Henry is answered by the presence of Frank.  Simply put, it's nice to have a man around the house again.  He fills a gaping hole for both of them.  For Henry, an honest and patient father-figure presents itself.  For Adele, she finds a kindred spirit of loss and a respectful desire she didn't think she would rediscover.

LESSON #3: NOTHING MISLEADS PEOPLE LIKE THE TRUTH-- This is a quotable mantra from Frank that rings true again and again during the film.  It speaks to two tendencies.  First, it supports how most lies are transparent compared to telling the truth.  People see through lies.  The truth is thicker.  Secondly, misled or not, people listen more to the truth.  Lies irk their warning sense while truth puts them at ease.