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Jason Reitman's 'Labor Day' is both traditional and personal

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TELLURIDE, Colo. — Director Jason Reitman suspects he will get the same "Labor Day" question that dogged Joyce Maynard when she wrote her 2009 novel of the same name: How could any single mother invite an escaped prisoner into her home?

But if audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, where "Labor Day" is having its world premiere this weekend, are raising that issue, it's because it is initially hard to comprehend the troubled world that Adele (played in Reitman's film by Kate Winslet) has come to inhabit.

Divorced after a devastating family trauma, Adele is living in Massachusetts with her adolescent son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). One step away from being a full-blown agoraphobic, Adele has developed an unhealthy dependence upon Henry, whose budding sexuality — he's starting to notice small things, like girls' bra straps — is complicating his relationship with his mother.

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In one rare visit to the outside world, Adele and Henry meet Frank (Josh Brolin), who desperately needs a ride from the big-box retailer where they are shopping. He quickly admits that he's on the run, and Adele, rather than try to ring the police, begins to see Frank in a different, affectionate light: She needs Frank, it turns out, perhaps even more than he needs her and Henry.

Her choices are obviously based more on instinct than wisdom, and the unspoken imperatives behind her decision anchor the story. It's part of what captivated Reitman when he first read the book several years ago.

"This is probably the most faithful adaptation I have made or will ever make," said the writer-director, who previously adapted Christopher Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking" and Walter Kirn's "Up in the Air," the latter of which premiered in Telluride in 2009 (Reitman's "Juno," written by Diablo Cody, also debuted here in 2007). "I was trying to capture how I felt when I first read the material."

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While it took Reitman, 35, seven years to work out the screenplay for "Up in the Air," he wrote his adaptation of "Labor Day" in a matter of months.

At first, he intended to make the movie after filming "Up in the Air" — which was nominated for six Oscars in 2010, including best picture, director and adapted screenplay. But Winslet was unavailable for a year, so in the interim, Reitman shot "Young Adult" with Charlize Theron — about a divorced fiction writer who tries to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend. It turned out to be Reitman's least successful film, both commercially and critically.

In many ways, "Labor Day," which Paramount Pictures will release in theaters Dec. 25, is both Reitman's most traditional and personal film.

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Its camera moves, editing and scoring are decidedly old-fashioned, and unlike Reitman's other films, its lead characters don't hide behind glib dialogue or sometimes operate like preternatural versions of real people — as did Ellen Page in "Juno" or George Clooney in "Up in the Air." Adele, Henry and Josh feel much more authentic, but they share a common Reitman denominator: lost souls looking for a meaningful connection.

Reitman's personal life has in the past paralleled (and been reflected in) his films: When he directed the adoption story "Juno," he had recently become a father. And while he was making "Labor Day," he was working as a recently divorced husband. A scene between Henry and his father talking about the breakup with Adele, Reitman said, is the best evidence of how the collapse of the filmmaker's marriage is reflected on screen.

Reitman said he connected to Maynard's novel, which was partially inspired by an uncanny letter exchange the writer had with a jailed felon, most directly through Henry.

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"I was pretty close to his age in 1987," Reitman said of the year when the story is set. "And I remember being younger and having that bond with my mother and I was just starting to figure out sexuality. And Joyce just nailed it."

It's not Maynard's first film adaptation, and Reitman worked closely with her. The author, whose teenage romance with J.D. Salinger was memorialized in her book "At Home in the World," wrote the novel "To Die For," which was the source material for the 1995 Nicole Kidman film of the same title.

In both the novel "Labor Day" and the film, Henry is more patriarch and husband than he is son, so when Frank ties up Adele in one scene, the young boy looks at his mother not out of concern but out of jealousy.

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"He understands something is physically happening between his mother and this man, but he doesn't understand sex or how complex adult desire and love is," Reitman said.

In following the novel closely, Reitman lavished particular attention on a key scene where Frank teaches Adele and Henry how to bake a pie.

The director's shooting of the dessert-making sequence is to pastry what "Ghost" was to clay on a potter's wheel, and if the Motion Picture Assn. of America could give an NC-17 rating to stone fruit, the peaches in "Labor Day" might earn the adults-only mark. (Brolin took the part so seriously that he baked a pie for the film's cast and crew every day of filming, working to perfect the moisture content in his dough.)

Even with all of the extraordinary circumstances that bring Adele and Frank together, Reitman said, "Labor Day" is a more conventional story than it might first appear.

"It's a traditional romance," the director said, "between two people who really need each other."

john.horn@latimes.com

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