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A distasteful slice of gender politics pie

  • 13 February 2014

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