By Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - Director Jason Reitman, known for snappily written modern-day comedies like "Up in the Air" and "Juno," tackles unfamiliar territory with his new feature "Labor Day," a fugitive love story set in 1980s small-town America.
Adapted by Reitman from the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, the film centers on an agoraphobic single mother, played by Kate Winslet, and her 13-year-old son. Their lives are reshaped over a 1987 holiday weekend when an escaped convict, portrayed by Josh Brolin, forces them to shelter him from authorities.
The film, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, is a departure from Reitman's other offerings, which have taken a generally tongue-in-cheek look at issues such as teenage pregnancy, corporate lobbyists and the frequent-flyer lifestyle.
But the 35-year-old Montreal native and son of director Ivan Reitman said he wasn't setting out to change lanes in a career that has already netted him two best director Oscar nominations.
"I wasn't looking to make a shift," he said at a press conference.
"Strangely, I think underneath it all this film is similar to my other works in that they're about atypical heroes."
The film received a rare round of applause at a press and industry screening in Toronto, and might be positioned for Academy Awards notice with a Christmas Day release date - prime time for films hoping to get awards consideration - as well as its premiere at a festival known for launching Oscar contenders.
However, early reviews have been mixed, with Variety critic Peter Debruge calling it a powerful but contrived romance that has the potential to be a holiday sleeper hit.
Guardian reviewer Catherine Shoard said the film was "brilliantly executed" with accomplished performances from both Winslet and Brolin, but said it suffered from an "absurdity of circumstance."
"This is a heck of a potboiler to swallow whole," she wrote.
While the story is told through the perspective of 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (played by newcomer Gattlin Griffith), it is the evolving relationship between Brolin's Frank Chambers and Winslet's Adele Wheeler, that propels the story forward.
Adele, barely able to leave the house following a crushing divorce, reluctantly takes son Henry out shopping for back-to-school clothes, when a strange man with blood on his shirt approaches, demanding that they give him a lift.
Once at Adele's home, Frank becomes both the captor and man-about-the-house for Adele and Henry. He ties Adele to a chair, but then tenderly spoon-feeds her chili; he forces Henry to turn away a man who comes to the door, but then shows him how to throw a curve ball.
While flashbacks reveal both Adele and Frank's pasts, the present-day story unfolds at a steady pace, all set in small-town New Hampshire with neighbors who don't knock and cops that troll the streets for kids skipping school.
For Brolin, who's no stranger to rough-cut characters in films such as "No Country for Old Men" and "True Grit," preparation for the role involved learning how to make a pie from scratch, necessary for a lengthy scene where the main characters bond over pie crust and a bowl of peaches.
"I got good. I'd send emails out with pictures of my pies," said Brolin, noting that he regularly brought in practice pies for cast members, crew and teamsters working on the site.
Reitman added: "Josh is a picture of masculinity, but you'd show up at his door and he'd be in an apron, and he'd be so excited to tell you about the crust he achieved that day."
"He'd give pies to everybody and it really was exciting at first, but at a certain point you'd see the pie and you'd go running."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)