'The Holdovers' — frosty days at a 1970s prep school

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 14, 2023
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Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in 'The Holdovers' (photo: Focus Features)
Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in 'The Holdovers' (photo: Focus Features)

Christmas has arrived early this year in the form of Alexander Payne's career-resuscitating and first period film, "The Holdovers."

It took six years for Payne to recover from his first failure, the sci-fi "Downsizing" in 2017, after such acclaimed award-winning films as "Election," "The Descendants," "Nebraska," and the caustic 2004 comedy "Sideways."

"Holdovers" (Focus Features) reunites him with "Sideways" star Paul Giamatti, both at the peak of their respective powers. It features a nostalgic leisurely-paced character study (i.e. "Dead Poet's Society") that Hollywood (read Miramax) no longer makes and is long due for a renaissance. There's nothing new here, but like sipping brandy in front of a roaring fireplace. It's soothing and exudes a perceptive wisdom, reminding us we live and die according to the relationships we forge, however temporary they may be.

The scrooge here is curmudgeonly Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a rigid Ancient Civilizations teacher at the fictional elite Barton Academy boarding school near Boston in 1970. He treats his wealthy students with contempt, deliberately trying to flunk them so they won't get into the Ivy League schools of their dreams. Hunham is loathed by students and faculty alike.

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in 'The Holdovers' (photo: Focus Features)  

Not a vacation
When a fellow teacher gets excused because of his mother's illness coupled with retribution from the headmaster, Hunham is forced to babysit the "holdover" students, who won't be spending the Christmas holidays with their families. It's not a vacation, but a mandatory study hall.

Four of the students are helicoptered miraculously out by a fellow parent to a ski resort, leaving behind sassy, rebellious, trouble-maker 15-year-old Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). He's disinvited from a family vacation to St. Kitts, so his mother and new stepfather can take their delayed honeymoon.

Also remaining is the prep school's head cafeteria manager/chef Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who spends her first Christmas alone after her 19-year-old son, a recent Barton graduate, was killed in the Vietnam War. Because Mary couldn't afford to send him to college, he was denied a student deferment, unlike his rich white classmates.

The still-grieving Mary chooses to stay at Barton because it was the last place she spent with her son, watching reruns of "The Newlywed Game" on TV to pacify her. Lamb and Hunham share a penchant for drowning their sorrows in Jim Beam bourbon.

Hunham and Tully are at each other's throats from the start, with Hunham (a variant of human?) punishing Tully's smart-aleck behavior with, "You just earned yourself a big detention," and Tully replying, "Being with you is already one big detention."

However, it isn't long before these three despondent lost souls start bonding, gritting their teeth and celebrating the holidays together. Along with a series of misadventures in a gym, bar, and hospital, the central event is a road trip to Boston, where Lamb will visit with her pregnant sister and Tully will try to reconnect with his absent father, a long-time resident in a mental hospital, the latter action leading to unforeseen consequences that will touch all their lives, especially Hunham.

Terse, funny, bitchy
The themes of a chosen family, with one who has lost family, another rejected by family, and the last one unable to form a family, will resonate with LGBTQ audiences, as will their sad backstories of outcasts trying to make their way in the world, and long-buried shameful secrets being revealed.

The terse, funny, at times bitchy, crackling dialogue (Hunham accusing Tully of "hormonal vulgarism") has its appeal as well. This is only the second time Payne (who's won two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay) didn't write the script.

"Holdovers," with the exception of playing President John Adams for HBO TV, is Giamatti's best role, since his Oscar-nominated triumph as Miles Raymond, the depressed, wine aficionado, middle-aged English teacher in "Sideways."

Giamatti, the son of Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti, attended a boarding school and has intimate knowledge of the academic world, which helps him create Hunham as three-dimensional. Few actors do bitter and pompous as well as Giamatti.

Due to a genetic disorder, Hunham has an offensive fishy-type smell, particularly pungent at the end of the day, sweaty palms, and a glass eye, all of which make him slightly nefarious but also vulnerable and hence defensive. His humbug exterior conceals his fears, but also when angry his rebellious nature emerges, enabling him to connect with Tully. Giamatti's wild facial expressions reveal his loneliness and oddball penchant, which allows him to craft an empathetic portrayal of a wiseass broken man devoid of any dreams.

Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in 'The Holdovers' (photo: Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)  

Tours de force
Randolph, who scored great notices as the police detective in Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building," this season, is the world-weary calm referee in the storm. Her breakdown scene at a Christmas Eve party is a shattering tour de force, the kind of performance an actor waits for their whole career. It's her ability to endure sassily despite heartache that will stir audiences.

Sessa, in a star-making performance, is this generation's Lana Turner, discovered by Payne at Deerfield Academy's (where the film is shot) drama department, whose talent as a natural on film is evident from the first frame. It's the best debut for a young actor since Lucas Hedges in "Manchester By the Sea." Sessa easily keeps pace with his seasoned elders, willing to show the character's teen angst and rage fueling his spikes of self-destructiveness.

We can safely predict all three actors will be nominated for Oscars in their respective categories, as will the film for Best Picture and Payne for Best Director. What is particularly outstanding is that the film feels like a time machine, transporting us back to 1970, pinpointing the decade's eccentricities, ambience, and ethos.

The movie also captures the melancholy and barrenness of a cold snowy New England winter landscape alongside musty, traditional ivy-covered buildings, aided by nostalgic period music (with the inevitable Cat Stevens track, but also the Allman Brothers).

The bittersweet ending avoids any sentimentality and Hunham's Cicero quote at the beginning of the movie, "Not for ourselves alone, are we born," elicits the message that will run throughout the film, as all three characters realize they can learn from each other and change for the better. Earthshaking, no, but Payne and company have crafted one of the year's best films, so give yourself an early holiday present and don't miss this humorous, heartfelt paen to compassion for ourselves and each other.


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