After the disappointing Downsizing, film fans wondered if American filmmaker Alexander Payne could recapture the magic in his earlier acclaimed dramadies such as Sideways and Nebraska. But his latest film, The Holdovers, sees him reunite with Sideways star Paul Giamatti in a delightful return to form.
Set in 1970 at the prestigious Barton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, The Holdovers sees history teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti) recruited to look after a group of pupils “stuck” at the school over Christmas. Among them is one of his students, the troubled Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa).
As soon as the retro Universal logo appears, the film’s 1970s aesthetic immediately establishes the timeliness of the narrative. The Vietnam War is ongoing and young men are enlisting every day – one particular character, Curtis Lamb – the son of school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and former Barton student, provides a minor yet consistent subplot as Mary experiences ongoing difficulties in grieving for her late son. Although a fear of being enlisted is never fully explored, it serves as a quiet point of reference when it comes to highlighting the students’ level of entitlement, relying on their parents to use their influence to stay at school, their lack of respect when it comes to those who have served and their snobbish, racist attitudes (which is noticeable but thankfully curt).
The film focuses on three characters, all of whom have difficulties being open with others. Nicknamed “Wall-eye” by the students due to his amblyopia, Hunham is hated by most students and faculty alike due to his condescending nature. Over the Christmas break, he struggles to maintain his “teacher” mode through a restricted timetable, especially as the majority of his charges are whisked away by an overaccommodating parent. The only one left is Tully, whose mother has abandoned him to go on honeymoon with her new husband. The Holdovers is certainly not the first film that sees a teacher face off against unwilling students (Dangerous Minds, Sister Act 2, Good Poets Society) but in Payne’s latest feature, it starts off being one film and eventually becomes another, essentially three characters finding support and a sense of closure with each other.
However, the majority of the narrative focuses on the evolving dynamic between Tully and Hunham. The former, in particular, is dealing with the loss of his father while the latter seems incapable of reaching his student on an emotional and albeit “cool” level. They eventually find a rapport that they didn’t realise they needed amid their friendship but having them become a focal point in The Holdovers prevents a deeper exploration of Mary’s grief – a key scene during a Christmas party is a good example, as a tense moment becomes swept under the rug and is quickly forgotten.
Nonetheless, Payne seems to understand character’s pain and how to find peace with complex but emotionally draining situations while balancing it with light yet effective comedy. He achieved this in Sideways, The Descendants and to a point, Nebraska, and he reaches a new high in The Holdovers. The combination of his gentle direction and Eigil Bryld’s cinematography instills a poignancy in each character’s respective melancholia while subtly guiding them along the coming-of-age narrative and unexpected bouts of hilarity. Kudos must also given to David Hemingson’s layered, sharp-witted screenplay, which includes some of the most eloquently iconic insults ever to grace the cinema this year. Each insult is breezily delivered by Giamatti, who is on top form as the old-fashioned Hunham. His growing rapport with rebellious Angus, played brilliantly by newcomer Sessa, is incredibly engaging as they bring out the best and worst of each other. Meanwhile, Da’Vine Joy Randolph offers a touch of sass and heart as Mary, a welcome buffer between her two bickering companions.
Although certain narrative elements are left in the dark, The Holdovers delivers buckets of wit and charm in one of Payne’s strongest films in years. Accompanied by a lovely soundtrack and the rare cosiness of a Christmas movie, it is an unexpectedly heartwarming gem of a film.
Director: Alexander Payne, David Hemingson
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Runtime: 133 minutes