A mysterious, hard-edged but sensitive man enters the life of a frail single mom and her son and somehow gives both of them a hope for a potential family life.
Director Jason Reitman's past films have generally been edgier fare (Young Adult, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air) but the director is inching perilously close to Nicholas Sparks tearjerker territory with this film, Reitman's own adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard (To Die For).
The year is 1986 and the hard-edged man is Frank (Josh Brolin), a dangerous-looking Vietnam vet freshly escaped from a prison hospital.
In a department store, he menacingly enlists the help of single mom/borderline agoraphobe Adele (Kate Winslet) by suggesting harm could come to her 14-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith).
Mother and son drive Frank back to their home, where Adele tends to Frank's surgical wound. It emerges Frank is not particularly dangerous after all. The convicted murderer is a fundamentally decent sort who repays Adele's troubles by fixing up her house, changing the oil in her car and whipping up a tasty-looking chili -- a Sparksian motif if ever there were one.
He doesn't ignore Henry. He teaches the lad how to throw a baseball and whip up a delectable peach pie. If his crusty exterior suggests Charles Manson, Frank's convict nature is closer to Martha Stewart.
As the Labor Day weekend proceeds, Frank manages to win his way into Adele's troubled heart. Along the way, we are privy to both their back stories: the root of Adele's depression and the dissolution of her marriage to her decent but weak husband (Clark Gregg) and Frank's own tragic marriage to an unfaithful sexpot.
To distinguish the film from the maudlin Sparks oeuvre (Safe Haven, The Lucky One) Reitman creates considerable tension from innocent domestic encounters, as when a kindly neighbour (J.K. Simmons) drops off a basket of peaches, or when another neighbour (Brooke Smith) insists on leaving her wheelchair-bound son (Micah Fowler) in Adele's reluctant care.
Adding tension, Rolfe Kent's monochromatic music score is the aural opposite of the more florid soundtracks that accompany these kinds of stories.
The performances also tend to provide solid counterweight to the potentially drippy romance on view here. Winslet brings a real frailty to Adele. Brolin somehow stays credible in a role that requires him to be scary one minute and sympathetic the next. And young Griffith brings a refreshing less-is-more sensibility to his troubled teen hero.
In the past few years, studios have often contrived to release a Nicholas Sparks adaptation for Valentine's Day. Consider Labor Day a comparatively welcome, inoffensive respite from that insidious release strategy.