First Look

At Telluride, Jason Reitman’s ‘Labor Day’ Is Superbly Acted

The two-time Oscar nominated director (Juno, Up in the Air) kicked off the 40th annual film festival with the first screening of his latest—a dark drama starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.


Each year, the Patrons’ Screening, as it’s named, kicks off the Telluride Film Festival—a serene celebration of cinema set in a former silver-mining town (pop. ~2,368) nestled within the San Juan Mountains. This viewing is shrouded in secrecy, with the majority of attendees unaware of the selected film ’til their butts hit the seats. Two years ago, the Patrons’ Screening was Alexander Payne’s The Descendants; last year, it was Argo—which would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a prestigious slot, to say the least.

Festivalgoers must take a gondola up—and then down—a picturesque mountain range to reach the Chuck Jones Cinema, where said screening takes place. And this screening was a hot ticket. Francis Ford Coppola sat a stone’s throw from me, as did Oscar-winning filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), and Michael Moore.

The film we all came to see is, it turns out, Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, which won't hit theaters ’til December 25. It’s Reitman’s third film to make its world premiere at Telluride, after hits Juno and Up in the Air, and marks a creative deviation of sorts into darker territory.

“It’s a movie about inexplicable decisions … a love story,” said Reitman while introducing the film, which he dedicated to his mother.

Adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is set in 1987 in the suburb of Holton Mills, Massachusetts, and centers on Adele (Kate Winslet), a severely depressed single mother to her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Her ex-husband, played by Clark Gregg, ditched her for his secretary, and the loss of his love helped transform Adele into a shut-in who only leaves the house once a month to purchase supplies from the local Pricemarket. During one of these trips, the twosome run into an imposing, bleeding man in a goatee who forces them to give him a lift to their home. “This needs to happen,” he utters with menace.

The man is Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who was serving an 18-year prison sentence for murder. Adele and Henry take him to their home, where he says he’ll just rest his legs for a few hours and be on his way by nightfall. But that doesn’t happen. Frank ties Adele to a chair, and begins spoon-feeding her some homemade chili. Even though she’s bound and scared, Adele feels—for the first time in a long time—like someone cares for her. She’s soon freed from bondage, and Frank begins doing chores around the house, like fixing their broken-down car, baking pies, and even teaching young Henry, who never had a father figure in his life, how to throw a baseball. Soon, both Adele and Henry feel as though a void has been filled in their lives. And soon, Adele and Frank—both of whom share dark pasts—fall deeply in love with one another. But Frank is still a wanted man, and soon, this new “family” fears that his past will catch up with him.

Like Reitman’s last film, 2011’s Young Adult, his latest centers on a deeply troubled soul—what Wolfe might dub “God’s Lonely Woman.” But unlike Mavis, the relentlessly self-involved ghostwriter played by Charlize Theron, Adele is a tragic heroine who demands our empathy, and her tumultuous journey isn’t played for laughs, but tears. At its worst, the proceedings strain credibility and are a tad dreary and laborious—like another Winslet-starring interior drama, Revolutionary Road. But it’s redeemed by the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Winslet, in particular, should garner some award consideration for her turn as a woman so beaten down by life she can barely hold a pen without shaking uncontrollably. It’s a far more measured—and affecting—performance than her boisterous, Oscar-winning turn in The Reader. Here, instead of verbalizing her emotions, Winslet oozes dread via her broken-down visage, and slight mannerisms. Brolin is also effective, blending menace and warmth as the caring con man, and Griffith is solid as the young boy struggling to find a balance in life, whose older self (played by Tobey Maguire) narrates the tale. The lensing by Eric Steelberg is lush, especially in Malick-lite flashbacks to Frank’s former life, and the score by Rolfe Kent perfectly complements the somber proceedings.