When director Alexander Payne’s name is mentioned in film circles, ears perk up, especially with this critic. The modern crafter of the almighty curmudgeon, Payne’s eyes for isolation, survival, and “oh woe is me” attitude is something to cherish as he explores the characters through their environment, which becomes a distinctive character as the supporting characters gently reveal their cards. We saw this phenomenon brilliantly executed in About Schmidt and Nebraska. Payne’s latest film, The Holdovers, is a brilliant return to his form.
Payne establishes his environment at a snow-bound Barton Academy, an all-boys preparatory school campus in 1970, through the opening credits. At its center is Paul Giamatti’s Paul Hunham, who, with his inspired features, mannerisms, and bookish aloofness, evinces Greek mythology in his class, delivering bad news to most of his students whom he has bored to tears right at the end of the semester.
Angus Tully, played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, challenges Hunham to allow the class to improve their grades for fear their elitist parents will send them off to a military academy after blowing their one last chance at redemption. Not to be outwitted by his students, he springs a pop quiz, which is quickly rebuked, the result of which will play out when you see the film. Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson sublimely establish the give-and-take nature of the relationship between Hunham and Tully as a change in plans for both forces them to remain on campus during the holiday break.
Neither likes the other nor being cooped up as they are. Their rivalry has the potential to make matters worse. Giamatti is an absolute delight as Tully slowly peels back his layers. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Mary Lamb, the school’s head cook, remains on campus throughout the winter break. The trio of actors brings out the best in each of the characters.
Tully, whose mom has consigned him to the campus over a honeymoon with her rich second husband for a trip to paradise, plays the lost and abandoned role exceptionally well. Sessa conveys that there is more than meets the eye in his talents and lack of skills. Giamatti plays the aloofness only so far, falling for Tully’s pranks while realizing a genuine need exists within Angus.
Mary’s story is given equal weight, with Payne guiding us through the emotional landmines dropping at just the right moments. The Holdovers balances its comedy and drama in equal measure. The humor, a Payne staple, is dry; however, Giamatti, Sessa, and Randolph hit their marks so that the drama punctuates the mood and vice versa.
The Holdovers’ strengths extend to its technical prowess. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld conveys the dramatic moments within the framing of the characters, significant use of close-up shots, and the bleakness of what should be a season of warmth and family, none of which the trio has on their own. Payne and Bryld made an active, creative choice to build on the 1970s feeling by adding just the right amount of film grain in post-production, so much so that you’d have sworn they shot the movie on film. The authenticity adds more layers to the characters and nuance to the story.
For Payne and Giamatti, The Holdovers is their second outing together. Their styles pair well, and the film feels effortless to watch and a joy in seeing the humanity in Giamatti and certainly Sessa, especially when they realize the emotional hurdle Randolph’s Mary Lamb endures.
All roads lead to and leave Barton Academy; it is the centrifuge in which our characters thrive in their personal miseries and the source of their triumphs. The pairing of Hunham and Tully carries the same weight as Grady Tripp and James Leer from Wonder Boys, John Keating and Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, or even, god forbid, Charlie’s influence on Elie and Thomas, along with Charlie’s virtual students in The Whale – each of these respective character pairings show the power behind the ethos and pathos of human interconnectedness at a time when it is sorely lacking in the real world. Payne effectively reminds us of the sources of our truths, the pains harbored within our rebellious natures, and the joys in discovering the intrinsic need for another human being.
The Holdovers is equally as adept at bringing out our source of truth with all the vagaries of vulnerability and the innate catharsis of humor in releasing that which holds us back, the very essence of freedom. It was a runner-up for the People’s Choice Award at Toronto and has a place in this critic’s Top 10 list.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by David Hemingson
Starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
R, 133 m, Focus Features