The story is about a long Labor Day weekend, five days in New Hampshire. A woebegone woman goes shopping for supplies with her protective son. In a voiceover by Tobey Maguire, Henry explains that his father left the family to start a new one, into which he always inviting Henry. Henry refuses. He's there to take care of his mother, whose bedraggled spirit shows in her carriage, despite her fecund curves.
At the store, Henry is quietly accosted by a man with blood on his temple and right side. "I need a ride," he says and coerces the boy to ask his mother. At first, Adele says no, but the man, Frank, insists in a kind of kidnappery way. They go back to the house whereupon Frank confesses to having jumped out a hospital window and escaped from prison, where he'd been housed for murder. For five days, the three of them hide this secret while, at the same time, they grow to care for each other.
Frank teaches Hank how to throw a ball and the teaches both of them how to bake a pie. He teaches them both to love again, to take risks, to hope.
Meanwhile, the film is tracing Frank's and Adele's histories, explaining her trounced spirit and his imprisonment. In an epilogue, the film follows Henry to adulthood, to the point where Maguire's voice becomes his acting as the grown-up Henry. But the 7th-grader Henry that wins hearts and minds is played by Gattlin Griffiths, every movement of his eye and hand calculated. Josh Brolin, in his best work to date, turns in a stellar performance as the kind convict. Kate Winslet is a marvel as Adele, her eyebrows veritable wooly worms of worry; she is strong as this weakened woman, hollowed from grief and despair. James Van Der Beek as a cop and Clark Gregg as Henry's father are sturdy additions, and Brighid Fleming as an invasive girl, is believable as a smart-alec.
Jason Reitman directed the film from his screenplay based on Maynard's novel. He keeps his camera often at small Henry's eye level but offers close-up after close-up on domestic moments. The pie-baking scene, wherein three people who have not felt all five senses in a long time, is as sensual as sex. "Labor Day," about pain and forgiveness, opens with a winding road that works its way through Labor Day as metaphor.