Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is the latest film offering from Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director Jason Reitman, best known for Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, the film is a departure from the director’s previous styles and offers up a drama exploring the troubles of an American family in the mid-80s.

What’s it about? Adolescent Henry (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his depressed single mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), in a sleepy New England town. Struggling with simple daily tasks like going to the bank and shopping, Adele relies on Henry to help her through the week. But over the Labor Day weekend their lives take an unexpected turn, when Henry is approached in a store by a wounded man and asked for help. The man in question (Josh Brolin) turns out to be an escaped convict from the local prison.

As the police search intensifies, Henry and Adele discover more about the man and his past, and in so doing learn more about themselves and the lives they’re leading.

Verdict: With a top-notch cast and an impressive director, this film had the potential to be a wonderfully subtle drama about family ties, love, sex, betrayal, loss, loneliness, dependency and more. But sadly, the film fails to deliver this three-fold with an over-long first act, implausible character development, and a bad case of genre-hopping that throws off the tone and atmosphere of the film.

There’s no denying that the calibre of the acting in the film is first class. Winslet delivers a typically powerful and nuanced performance as Adele, portraying her as a deeply human mixture of vulnerability and strength, domesticity and sexuality. Josh Brolin switches effortlessly between being an unsettling presence and an intensely sympathetic character as the narrative demands. And the young Gattlin Griffith turns in a performance that belies his age, by turns sweet, angry, jealous, lost, and always understated. But even the best efforts of the actors cannot change the sometimes stodgy dialogue and often implausible choices of the characters.

The film opens with escaped convict Frank approaching young Henry and asking for his help. Despite being a total stranger, fairly menacing, and covered in blood, both mother and son decide to give him a ride home. It’s the first unlikely choice of many in an opening act that crams weeks’ worth of character development into a timeline of a few days, switches frequently from a tone of tension to one of relaxed sentimentality, and which seems to imply that having a man around the house to repair the car, play baseball, and bake some pies is enough to fix a damaged mother and her lonely, confused son.

And therein lies the film’s biggest problem. Reitman can’t seem to decide what this film is – a slow-burning thriller, a blunt drama, or a sentimental story about love and family. The radical shift in atmosphere from the tense opening scenes to the overtly sentimental conclusion just doesn’t feel authentic and, in spite of some stunning cinematography, the way the story is delivered reflects this insincerity – most notably, the added voiceover from Tobey Maguire. The final act ramps up the pace and the investment in the characters starts to pay off more, but, although the plot requires a short timeline, the haste with which relationships are formed simply cannot justify the ending.

Final Words: It had the potential to be a disturbing, subtle thriller or a deeply-affecting drama, but in trying to be both the shaky tone and confused character development of the film make it feel disingenuous and undermines the great central performances. Some may be able to overlook this and enjoy it as a drama, but long-time Reitman fans might be left disappointed.

Rating: 2.5 / 5      

Labor Day is released in UK cinemas on 28 March 2014.