Labor Day is a strange, strangely compelling romance - one minute it's Harlequin bodice-ripper, the next it's Jim Thompson pulp. In fact, it's an adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, set in 1980s New England, with screenplay and direction by Jason Reitman, who heads off into unexpected terrain after the coolly observed character studies of Young Adult (Charlize Theron as a bitter, boozing author) and Up in the Air (George Clooney as a slick efficiency expert).
Adele, agoraphobic and dependent on her son, is, like Reitman's earlier protagonists, pretty much alone in the world. When her husband left her for another woman, the love drained from Adele's soul, leaving her (literally) shaking and scared. Henry does his best to tend to his mother's needs, assuming responsibilities that typically don't fall on a fledgling teen. But their life is frozen, muted, melancholy.
And then a guy with a limp and a gash in his gut corners Henry in a department store, and convinces the Wheelers to take him back to their place.
What begins as a hostage situation soon becomes something else altogether: a swooning love story. Brolin's portrayal of the runaway inmate Frank is wonderfully sly - he's a walking, talking, lovemaking fantasy of sensitive hunkhood. The actor knows this guy is too much, but he makes him genuine nonetheless.
And Winslet is just extraordinary as this fragile, flinching woman who returns to her senses - and whose senses return to her - in the company of this mysterious stranger.
Griffith, who was Angelina Jolie's missing son in Clint Eastwood's Changeling, is likewise remarkable. Labor Day is a coming-of-age story, too, and Henry's transformation is key to the story, even if it's clumsily framed in a looking-back voiceover (supplied by Tobey Maguire, as the adult Henry).
There are other missteps. The flashbacks to Frank's pre-prison days, and to an earlier love story, are gauzy and sun-splattered in the manner of Terrence Malick. And a coda, with old-age makeup, is not to be believed. There are other, better places to end this yarn.
And it is a yarn. But it's so full of passion, poetry, and humor that it becomes, for the time, quite real.
Now, where can we get a slice of that pie?
Labor Day ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jason Reitman. With Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, and Clark Gregg. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters