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Labor Day

Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) directs an ideal Valentine's Day date movie.

Leave it to Kate Winslet’s warmth, intelligence and sincerity to bring us out of the winter doldrums with Jason Reitman’s nuanced, keenly observed romantic drama Labor Day.  It resonates with delicacy, passion and restraint, touching the heart in places where cynics fear to go.

Carefully adapted by writer-director Mr. Reitman from the acclaimed novel by Joyce Maynard, it’s the poignant story, set in 1987 New England, of a 13-year-old boy’s unconditional love for his lonely, divorced mother, a once-vibrant woman who has grown physically unkempt, emotionally stagnant and sexually barren through loss and neglect. When her husband deserted them, the boy (astonishing new kid on the block Gattlin Griffith) tried to take his father’s place, giving his mother the love she lost and filling the empty space in her life with his own brand of devotion and affection. But Adele (a grippingly mature Ms. Winslet) has become so timid and reclusive that she rarely leaves the house except to buy supplies with the boy as her constant companion. On one of those excursions, a stranger forces Adele and her son, Henry, into their station wagon at the shopping mall and convinces them to drive him to their derelict house in the woods. The man is Frank Chambers (played by a remarkably sensitive Josh Brolin), an escaped convict wrongly serving 18 years for murder.

Although his hostages cringe in terror, this is no violent, dime-store paperback criminal. Frank cooks, minds the furnace, waxes the floor and shows his captives the sort of kindness, strength and presence they’ve been missing for a long time. For five days over the Labor Day weekend, their lives change forever. Told through the boy’s eyes, the details of their story are assembled in flashbacks and memories narrated by Henry as a grown man. The pieces of a jigsaw that will seem, to some, as preposterous, all come together in a satisfying and deeply touching third act that throbs with an understated depth of emotion rarely experienced in films today.

With skillfully honed elements Labor Day delivers solid goods for every kind of audience. An astute social activist, Mr. Reitman specializes in leavening serious subjects with humor. Labor Day is his first full-blown attempt to tackle the tender consequences of unconventional love, and it’s the real deal. The results force us to grapple with different dynamics simultaneously. The metaphors, enhanced by great acting and mirrored in the gorgeous images of Eric Steelberg’s golden cinematography, add up to a wrenching, riveting and richly rewarding experience at the movies. - Rex Reed

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