If you are a frequent visitor to your local multiplex, you have might have noticed that there has been a serious dearth of movies about small-town American life these days. Last year’s Nebraska notwithstanding, Hollywood just doesn’t seem interested in telling stories about flyover country anymore. It could be a simple case of economics; with the profit margin on studio movies thinner than ever, producers have decided to simply go where the audiences are, and that means more films centered around urban life and fewer on the small towns that are slowly disappearing from the American landscape. Meanwhile, those films that do shine their lights on small town existence rarely get their proper audience because they are seen as “indies.” In his terrific article last month for Indiewire, Landon Palmer identified the strange paradox in which we find ourselves: “[W]ide-release metropolis-based films play nationwide, while smaller films set in the rural US almost exclusively play in the big city markets that carry platform releases.”
Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is an exception that will surely be used to justify the rule. Its story of romance between a depressed single mother and a surprisingly gentle escaped convict takes place in a small Massachusetts town in 1987 — not the distant past, but long enough to represent that bygone era when children could still wander around town on their own on a late summer afternoon. The child in question is Henry (Gattlin Griffith), the son and sole companion of Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressed and lonely single mother. Having lost her husband to his secretary years earlier, Adele mostly hides from the prying eyes of her neighbors in her run-down home, only leaving the house to run errands with Henry. It’s on one of these trips that the two cross paths with Frank (Josh Brolin), a handsome escaped convict who they take home for the night.
One night turns into several, and Frank quickly fills the void in their family – both as lover to Adele and father to Henry – that has dominated them since the divorce. The film’s gripping second half finds this new family trying to turn its long weekend together into a new life somewhere else. Like its characters, Labor Day reveals its tender heart to us openly and without much fear. Even if we know their idealised weekend will eventually succumb to reality, we love the dreamer for the dream.
Because of Jason Reitman’s past success, Labor Day opened on nearly 2,500 screens, but it barely made a dent in our national consciousness. It will probably be forgotten or, worse still, remembered as a joke. The critics already see it that way. “If it’s a hit, it could generate an uptick in prison correspondence from lonely women to roughnecks behind bars,” wrote Stephen Holden at The New York Times. Christopher Orr at The Atlantic thought the film “so saccharine that its very memory makes my teeth ache to the root.” James Berardinelli at Reelviews went the obvious route: “‘Labor’ isn’t just a word in the title of Jason Reitman’s new film, it’s a description of what it feels like to sit through the movie.”
The problem with trusting the critics on this one is that Labor Day wasn’t meant for them. Film critics mostly live in urban areas where they can catch all the latest indies, but Labor Day is for those who understand small-town living. Take, for example, the film’s infamous pie-making scene, which has been the source of much hooting and howling in the critics’ community. Here is the set-up: With Frank hiding in the corner, a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) brings Adele a basket of overripe peaches, which she has no idea what to do with. Frank does. He teaches Adele and Henry to make peach pie. It’s a long, sensuous sequence that some have compared to the pottery-making scene in Ghost, but the two actually have little in common. Those critics who see the pie-making as an erotic activity don’t understand how the act of growing and baking your own food is an act that binds country families together, and that the time and patience it takes to make a pie from scratch is something of value. I humbly submit to you, my fellow film critics, that it might even be something you are missing.
But there could be other reasons critics are ill-suited to rule on the film. Labor Day may not have been created for those who place a high value on cleverness and fire off pithy sarcastic comments in 140 characters or fewer. Rather, it is an earnest, guileless story of love and loss that marks a significant and welcome departure for writer/director Jason Reitman, whose reputation is as something of a chronicler of irony. There was his directorial debut, Thank You for Smoking, a wicked satire of tobacco lobbyists; the Oscar-nominated Juno, a comedy about a pregnant teen that came with its own distancing hipster lexicon; then two films – Up in the Air and Young Adult – about good-looking, successful people who never bothered to grow up. There is a running theme here: Reitman’s lead characters use the constructs of language to hide their vulnerabilities. From the spiritually-empty motivational speeches of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air to the cheesy high school romance novels from which Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) has made her millions in Young Adult, his protagonists emerge from the shackles of their own words to satisfy the needs of the heart.
Labor Day starts where these films leave off, leaving the artifice of language almost completely behind in favor of raw emotion. Adele, Frank, and Henry spend much of the film in silence. Instead, their physical actions – like that pie-making – bond them together to create what is known as a family. I suppose I do understand why some critics have had trouble with the film: its earnestness is almost startling. Our minds – all of ours, but especially those of us who get paid to write about film – have been trained for irony and detachment, which Labor Day rejects in an elemental way.
Still, some will reject the premise that an urban bias poisoned critics against Labor Day by pointing out that movies about small towns actually had a bit of renaissance last year. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is nominated for a whole bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, and Jeff Nichols’s Mud was celebrated by critics. But both films comes with a thin layer of irony; Payne distances himself from the small town ethos through the character of David (Will Forte), who couldn’t be more pleased to have escaped, while Nichols fixes his gaze on a child and an almost-mythical outsider, neither of whom seem to be the product of their time and place. Labor Day, on the other hand, hinges on small-town life in its plot, characters, and themes, and approaches its subject with far more sincerity than either of those films.
I’ll admit that Labor Day isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t overlook its flaws. The story is not particularly original, and the characters only rise above the level of archetype through some tremendous chemistry between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. But the movie means what it says, and sometimes that’s enough. It dares to diverge from the current culture of cinema by opting for a small scale, an open heart, and a sincere interest in the lives of small-town Americans. I only hope they get a chance to see it.