"Labor Day" worked better as a novel. But if you didn't read the book and have no intention of tracking it down, the movie proves that accomplished actors matter.
Without performers of the caliber and intensity of Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, "Labor Day" could seem like a very special Hallmark Channel movie -- about looking for love in all the wrong places but finding romance again.
One where an escaped convict bunks with an anxious divorcee and her teenage son and does everything from home repairs to heart mending. Oh, and he makes a heavenly peach pie from scratch in a scene designed to telegraph that he's a sensitive sensual soul who just may have been wronged.
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality.
Jason Reitman, the filmmaker behind "Up in the Air" and "Juno," adapted Joyce Maynard's novel about an emotionally fragile divorcee, Adele (Ms. Winslet), her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and the stranger who changes their lives.
An adult Henry, looking back on that period in 1987, suggests it wasn't losing her husband that had broken Adele but losing love itself. "I could feel her loneliness and longing before I had a name for it," Henry observes.
He sees it fall away, though, after solemn stranger Frank Chambers (Mr. Brolin) encounters them in a store and quietly intimidates them into allowing him to get into their station wagon and go to their house so he can lie low and rest an injured leg for a few hours.
When Adele informs Frank, "I won't let anything happen to my son," he counters that he has never intentionally hurt anyone in his life. But that seems to be contradicted by news reports about Frank serving time for murder.
"Labor Day" tracks the main characters and others in their wake during a six-day stretch in which the tension bubbles like the juices in the fruit pie. The core trio are surrounded by Adele's ex-husband who is remarried with a second family, a female friend with a son who has cerebral palsy, neighbors living a little too close for comfort, a cynical teenage girl Henry meets and others populating the small town.
The New England story is set, by necessity, in a time before smartphones, Twitter and omnipresent surveillance cameras. And who needs "Fifty Shades of Grey" when Frank washes and waxes the wooden floor, changes the oil in the car and fixes homemade biscuits, and that's just for starters.
Director Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay, treats some of the details from the book in impressionistic fashion. He doesn't spell everything out in a crystal clear way, forcing moviegoers to fill in the gaps about past events featuring actor Tom Lapinski as young Frank.
Ms. Winslet tones down her vitality and glamour and makes Adele a woman shell-shocked by heartbreak and disappointment, while Mr. Brolin chisels away the stony exterior of Frank to reveal the man he once was or could be again. Young Gattlin tenderly plays Henry as a boy caught in the usual confusing tumult of being 13 and the fallout from his parents' divorce.
"Labor Day" is a drama for old-fashioned romantics with a willing suspension of disbelief. Even Ms. Maynard, who once corresponded with an inmate who charmed and comforted her during a difficult patch until she learned some ugly truths about his crimes, has said, "Perhaps this book should carry a warning label: Do not try this at home."
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.