Labor Day Movie — A Christian Movie Review!
A reclusive, depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) are approached by a strange man named Frank (Josh Brolin) in a grocery story who persuades them to give him a ride. Once in their car, their uneasiness turns to terror when Frank tells them to take him to their home. He turns out to be an escaped convict, though he is surprisingly polite and considerate despite his desperate situation. As he spends time with the family, an unexpected bond develops. As authorities relentlessly pursue him, the three find themselves in a difficult predicament: they are starting to become a family.
Directed and written for the screen by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) and based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day stars Josh Brolin (W), Kate Winslet (Titanic), Tobey Maguire (Spiderman), Clark Gregg (Thor, The Avengers), James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek), and Gattlin Griffith (Changeling).
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content: There is one implied sex scene in which no one is seen. Some faint noises are heard, but the only reason the audience knows it is happening is because the narrator says it is. Another quick flashback shows a woman passionately undressing a man — no nudity. In the midst of this story about an escaped convict, there is a side-story of the boy’s coming of age as he matures into his teenage years. One scene shows his fantasies about a girl in his class in which they’re in a lake skinny dipping, but no nudity is shown. Characters have frank and rather mature discussions about sex. The mother tries to give her son “the talk” about what sex is, and though the scene has a purpose in the larger scheme of the story, it’s awkward and slightly disturbing as the mother waxes poetic — to her son — about how sex awakens a different kind of hunger and emotional power in the human experience. This scene is not meant to be perverted or explicit in any way. The mother is trying to have an authentic, earnest conversation with her son about the emotion behind sexuality, but it could make for a very awkward scene to watch with the whole family. The movie presents sex in a complicated, mature but not entirely accurate or comprehensive (from a Christian worldview) way that might be difficult for younger teenagers to process. The film is rated PG-13, and it definitely deserves it. Keep pre-teen kids away, and if you do bring younger teenagers to see it, be prepared to have an in-depth conversation with them about the topics of sexuality that come up. Don’t let them just walk away from the movie without talking about those important issues and helping them process it in a healthy way. If you’ve never had “the talk” with your kid and if you’re not ready to have that conversation with them for whatever reason, then don’t take them to see this film. I doubt that teenagers are flocking to see this movie (it’s not really marketed for that demographic), but I figured I should mention it just in case.
Violence/Gore: This film deals with some emotionally traumatic themes, and the violence and death play big roles. A woman has her head violently slammed into furniture, and she dies. A baby drowns in a bathtub, though it is not shown when it happens — though the indirect way that the audience learns the baby’s fate is psychologically disturbing and stressful. A woman is shown having a miscarriage, and we see blood streaming down her leg. A woman holds her dead infant in her arms after a stillbirth. A man’s infected wound is shown briefly. A woman hits a wheelchair-bound mentally disabled boy very hard in the face, and it is very upsetting. I have worked with mentally disabled people, so this kind of violence was difficult to see on-screen. The film has a purpose behind it, but it’s unsettling to watch.
In general, if the traumatic experience of a miscarriage or a problematic child birth has ever effected you directly or indirectly, this film depicts and confronts that trauma in painstaking in-your-face detail. It might be very difficult for a person to watch a movie like this if she or he has any deep emotional wounds related to the tragedy of miscarriage or the loss of a baby.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: A bar full of people drinking is shown briefly.
Frightening/Intense Content: A character imagines being shot at in a car, and we see it vividly depicted. There is no gore. It’s just intense. This movie is all about psychological intensity, as we see the stress and fear of a man on the run from the police. The most intense and frightening scenes are the flashbacks which depict very traumatizing events in great emotional detail — see the “Violence/Gore” section above.
Entertainment Value and Film Craft
As a work of cinematic art, Labor Day is exquisite. The director Jason Reitman has made critically acclaimed movies like Juno and Up in the Air, so he knows his way around a movie camera. It’s an adaptation of an excellent novel and it is narrated by one of the characters, which means it is stock full of beautiful prose and literary dialogue — thoughtful lines like “I could sense her loneliness before I had any words to describe it.” Every detail of the film looks as if it had been scrutinized and refined endlessly. The film never wastes anything. It uses every mannerism from the actors, every prop, every color in the scenery, and every sound effect to produce a very precise emotional world that sucks you in and refuses to let go until the credits roll. The acting is award-winning. Kate Winslet was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in this film, and the other leads — Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith — play their roles to perfection.
The story — or at least 85% of it — takes place in 1987, so we’re treated to a spot-on retro period piece of how small town America looked in the 1980s. I grew up in a small town not unlike the one in this film, and seeing their faithful attention to the ’80s — from the kinds of products that the grocery store sells to the posters in the kid’s room — was like stepping into a time machine. It added a distant sweetness to the film, despite all the tension in the story. The composer Rolfe Kent creatively scores the film with a steady, just barely noticeable undercurrent of sparse sounds and instruments. It ends up creating a razor-sharp tension that somehow squeezes its way into even the sweet and peaceful moments of the film.
The emotional heaviness of this film is enough to wear anyone out. At the core of the film is a broken family: a brokenhearted, severely depressed single mother whose ex-husband left her for another woman and started a second family with that woman without skipping a beat. In the middle of all that brokenness is 7th-grader Henry who is trying to sort it all out and be a source of strength and healing for his mother. It’s an unhealthy, isolated prison: she never goes outside, and he is trying to parent her and take care of her in an unhealthy role reversal, which means he doesn’t have much of a life either. Both the mother and the son are trying to do the best they can with what life has dealt them, but neither of them knows how to break out of the prison.
And then Frank shows up and changes all of that.
In Frank we see every admirable quality a grown man can have: honesty, loyalty, courage, resourcefulness, wisdom, the ability (and, most importantly, the desire!) to take care of a home and a family, and a tenderheartedness that continually defies their expectations and contradicts his rough outward persona. Frank’s kindness and unswerving honesty — though he is an escaped convict — is contrasted sharply with the immoral traits of their neighbors. Frank treats a mentally disabled boy with deep respect and gentle kindness, and then we see the boy’s caretaker physically abuse the boy in front of other people. Despite Frank’s past crimes, he has greater virtue than the people in the neighborhood who speak with repugnance and moral superiority about Frank — even though they don’t know him — when they see his picture on the news.
It makes you think twice about judging someone and assuming the worst just because they’ve been in prison. Sometimes the souls refined in the fire of prison end up more virtuous than the judgmental citizen who has never gotten a speeding ticket.
There is much light in this story. You have to endure great pain to get there, but there are redemptive messages in this movie that force the viewer to ask big questions.
I can’t be too specific because I don’t believe in putting any spoilers in print (even with a “spoiler warning” disclaimer), but I think the most profound element of this film is expressed somewhere in the earlier stages of the story. And this I can talk about. It’s stuff you learn about in the trailer or the teaser description on IMDB.
For example, it’s no secret that Frank becomes close with the family. In fact, because they rarely go outside to avoid attracting attention from the police, their little home becomes an island of joy and bliss. You feel the sharp contrast between the happy world they’ve built and the dark and stormy outside world that seems to threaten their secret happiness at every turn. Even during their happiest moments, there is a sword of Damocles hanging over them — a brewing tension that they can never quite shake off. It hovers in their eyes even when the depressed mother feels joy again or the son feels (for the first time) what it’s like to have a dad who is there for him.
However, in the background of their little island of happiness, something very striking is communicated: the impermanence of life. Frank himself becomes symbolic of broader goals that every person on earth is chasing: joy, peace, fulfillment, a place to call home, a state of fixed security, — happiness. In this film, the characters experience these things at certain moments, yet there is a constant tension of finiteness. He’s an escaped convict on the run, just passing through, seeking shelter temporarily. How could this happiness ever last? The story of Frank’s arrival becomes a parable. From a Biblical perspective, all of the joys and pleasures of this world — even the wholesome ones like raising a family, going to baseball games, celebrating birthdays — are fleeting sighs that escape into the sky the moment we exhale. Our hearts are not supposed to be invested wholly in finding happiness in this world because we were not made for this world. We are citizens of a heavenly city. In fact, Hebrews 11 calls us “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth.
I doubt the filmmakers intended to create such a powerful sermon illustration with this film, but they did, whether they wanted to or not.
Despite the redemptive qualities and the brilliant artistic vision, be warned that it dives into some mature themes, and it baptizes the audience head-first into the trauma of some very tragic experiences: miscarriages, tragic deaths, broken homes, and broken people.
However, if you decide to see the film and you’re able to push through all of the pain, there is a satisfying wholeness in the film — at least as far as movie experiences go. There is much joy and profundity to be found in it. Some people compare it to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but I think the film has a more complex, darker, and more profound depth to it than that.
That may or may not be a good thing, depending on what you’re looking for in a movie this weekend.
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