“The Holdovers” is director Alexander Payne’s eighth film but he has already shown a storytelling brilliance that usually comes with far more years of experience. He not only understands the beauty that can come from quiet character development but also embraces the fringe elements that help elevate a movie to a far superior place.
The basic idea of “The Holdovers” resonates with the kind of academia tone done so well with “The Paper Chase.” Part of that comes from Payne’s production being set in the same time period as “The Paper Chase” but the main cinematic synaptic connection is the relationship between students and the instructors. What should be a very divided world slowly melts away to show the vast similarities.
Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) teaches ancient history in 1970 at Barton Academy, a New England prep school designed to turn out students for Ivy League schools. His gruff style and no-nonsense way of teaching has made him the focus of deep scorn from students and teachers. His death grip on the principles of higher education has not won him any favors with the headmaster.
Hunham is assigned the task of caring for the five students – known collectively as the holdovers – who do not get to go home for the Christmas break. Chief among the stranded students is the super smart troublemaker Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Through a turn of events that provide an escape for most of the holdovers, Angus ends up the last student under Hunham’s care.
Rounding out the tale is the head of the cafeteria, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). She is spending her first holiday after the death of her only son in Vietnam.
The complicated stories of these three are engaging enough to carry the movie. Payne dishes out small insights into Giamatti’s character to eventually reveal why he uses his scruples as a shield against any emotional attacks from the outside world.
This is the first time Payne and Giamatti have worked together since the 2004 release “Sideways.” The chemistry they had for that production has grown more intense with the passing years.
Sessa is a first-time film actor that Payne discovered while scouting high schools to use as filming locations. It is obvious he is not as adept at acting as Giamatti but the scenes they have together work because the veteran actor never tries to overpower his novice scene partner. There is a life-imitating-art sense when they are together as it is both a teacher-student relationship on screen and with the performers.
The real scene stealer is Randolph. Her portrayal of the grieving mother is poignant without being overly sentimental. There is a rawness to her pain that comes through moments even when Randolph’s character should be focused on other issues.
One of the many pluses Payne brings to the production is the way the school cook is depicted. So much of the film – from the opening credits to the mono soundtrack – is designed to reflect the early ‘70s. In that era, Randolph’s character would have been in the film just to throw out zinger one-liners. Payne has developed the character light years beyond stereotypes to make her a rich and full character.
Payne’s other works have been set in the present day. While “The Holdovers” has all of the elements of a period piece, the heart of the film is the same as his present-day tales as it shows Payne’s ability to create smart character-driven social satire.
That’s a plus as this is only the second time, along with “Nebraska,” that Payne didn’t write the script. It was David Hemingson (“How I Met Your Mother”) who penned the tale under Payne’s guidance. The process worked as the film is a beautiful study of love, family, hope, failure, guidance and acceptance.
Payne’s films have consistently used fascinating people in interesting locations to tell compelling stories. There are no big stunts but the emotional impact of the characters crashing together creates quality productions.
“The Holdovers” is currently in local theaters.
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa Carrie Preston.
Director: Alexander Payne
Rated: R for language, drug use, smoking, brief sexual material
Running time: 133 minutes.