A distasteful slice of gender politics pie

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Labor Day (M). Director: Jason Reitman. Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith. 111 minutes

It's difficult to talk about Labor Day without first saying something about pies. The film's infamous pie-making sequence is nauseating, and not only because it is corny. In it we see a previously despondent and sedentary woman (Winslet) veritably inflamed by the mere prospect of domestic bliss, delivered to her by a man (Brolin) whom she has known for only a few days. 'Let's put a lid on this house,' he drawls with heavy-handed symbolism, as she giddily slaps a sealing layer of pastry on top of the gooey fruit filling. Winslet has played some strong, independent women during her career. This is not one of them.

She plays Adele, a single mother in 1987 Massachusetts who suffers depression and agoraphobia as the after-effects of trauma. The gut-wrenching details of this trauma are eventually revealed — Adele can hardly be blamed for her emotional and psychological struggle. But Labor Day offers no robust consideration of mental illness. Far from it. In stark contrast to the male characters in the film, Adele is merely pitiable and helpless, and lacks the agency to raise herself from despondency. Labor Day thus conflates weakness with femaleness. 

Adele lives with her 13-year-old son Henry (Griffith), who takes care of her as best he can. This is much responsibility for someone so young, but his maleness appears to have invested him with innate moral fibre and a sense of domestic duty. Early in the film he presents Adele with a book of 'husband-for-a-week' vouchers; his future self, as narrator, says he didn't realise there are certain things a husband can give a woman that her son cannot. The message is clear: Henry's help is fine as far as it goes, but Adele needs a MAN.

Enter Brolin's gruff and stoic Frank, an escaped prisoner who was doing time for a violent crime, who now proceeds to hold Adele and Henry hostage in their own home. But not content to simply lie low, Frank makes himself useful, changing Adele's car tires, conducting home repairs, even teaching Henry to pitch a baseball. Adele, initially (rightly) horrified by their plight, grows delighted, even infatuated with this man who gets things done, whose role as de facto husband-father-redeemer culminates in the aforementioned pie-making tutorial.

This all takes place over the course of one long weekend (hence the film's title), by the end of which Adele and Henry are ready to run away and make a new life with this violent man. This is an unlikely scenario, but to his credit Reitman just about sells it. The film deftly weaves elements of thriller, romance and coming-of-age story with an endearingly elegiac tone, so that Labor Day is engaging, even touching, in the moment. It's largely upon reflection that its problems fully emerge.

It's hard to communicate just how distasteful its gender politics are without a few spoilers, so if you want to avoid them, skip the next two paragraphs.

If we are to accept that Frank and Adele are two damaged souls who find redemption in each other — which we must, if we are to swallow this tale — then we must be at peace with Frank's history (skillfully revealed through dreamlike flashbacks that flicker throughout the film), and not be content that his masculinity is a virtue in and of itself. And this means forgiving, even pitying him, for the incident of fatal domestic violence that landed him in prison in the first place. If Adele is 'weak woman', then Frank's late wife is 'scarlet woman', whose sins provoked Frank to the violent outburst that ended her life. This is victim-blaming of the most insidious kind.

The best excuse that might be made for Labor Day is that it is recounted by a now adult Henry (Maguire) who viewed his mother's bout of Stockholm Syndrome through romantic 13-year-old eyes. But Reitman offers a present-day denouement that makes such a reading impossible, and which reaffirms the troublesome gender politics that have preceded it. It confirms that weak woman Adele is indeed helpless without strong man Frank; that without his muscular arms to hold her up she will always stumble and fall.

Several of Reitman's previous films, including Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult, offered nuanced portrayals of strong, independently-minded women. Labor Day is an ill-judged leap in the other direction.


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Labor Day, Jason Reitman, Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith

 

 

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Here's an excerpt from writer/poet Kate Jennings' "Couples": couples create obstacle courses to prevent me from doing/all sorts of things easily/couples make sure i'm not comfortable with myself because/i'm only half a potential couple/couples point accusing right index fingers at me/couples make me guilty of loneliness, insecurity, or/worse still, lack of ambition.
Pam | 12 February 2014


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