An instant Alexander Payne classic much like ELECTION (1999) and SIDEWAYS (2004), THE HOLDOVERS reunites director Payne with his star from SIDEWAYS, Paul Giamatti. Set at a New England boarding school for boys in 1970, it is Payne’s first attempt at a period film, and he succeeds brilliantly.
When a fellow teacher lies about a sickly mother, adjunct professor of ancient history, Paul Hunham (Giamatti), is forced to remain on the Barton Academy campus to babysit the holdovers --- students who are unable to go home for the holidays. Initially there are five kids in total, one of whom has a very wealthy father who won’t let him come home until he cuts his hair.
The father eventually relents and arrives on campus in a helicopter to take his son, Jason (Michael Provost), and the others skiing for the Christmas break. Only Hunham isn’t able to reach the mother of Angus Tilly (Dominic Sessa), who is away on her honeymoon with her new husband. No permission from a parent means Angus must stay behind. Thus, it now becomes only Hunham, Angus and the school cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), to navigate the two weeks together.
THE HOLDOVERS is a memorable piece of filmmaking --- one of the best films of the year. The inspired screenplay is by David Hemingson making his feature film debut. His writing is genuine as the story delves into a myriad of issues including grief, racism, bullying, loneliness and loss. But to Hemingson’s credit, it is also very, very funny.
Of course, it always helps to have an actor of Giamatti’s caliber. The role of Hunham was written for him and he is superb. There are many talented actors, but I’m not sure anyone can express his feelings through facial expressions as perfectly as Giamatti. Hunham is solemn, taciturn and not well liked --- and Giamatti makes us all believers. But as THE HOLDOVERS progresses, a change is in process that only he can orchestrate as the accomplished actor he is.
This is Sessa’s first film and Payne, after many submissions for the role of Angus, has chosen wisely. The teenage years are never easy, but Sessa has captured the subtle nuances of those troubles. Angus isn’t a bad kid --- he simply has a lot to deal with at school and at home. It’s really an astounding performance from someone still in high school himself.
But it is Randolph who cements the threesome. Mary Lamb has recently lost her son to the war in Vietnam. He had been a student at Barton, but since Mary couldn’t afford to send him to college, he was drafted. Her pain is so raw and Randolph is masterful at allowing just enough to show. It’s her first Christmas without her son, so she is in no mood to suffer fools.
When the three of them get invited to a party, she insists they go. It’s hosted by Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), who also works at Barton. Hunham is secretly both excited and terrified because he thinks Lydia may have a crush on him. The party proves otherwise, and his devastation is quietly heartbreaking. Another Giamatti triumph.
THE HOLDOVERS is heartwarming, not overly sentimental --- and extremely humorous. It is one of Payne’s very best.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
THE HOLDOVERS is a sweet, frequently funny, slice-of-life story set in 1970’s New England during the Christmas holidays. The film is directed by Alexander Payne who gave the world SIDEWAYS, ELECTION and NEBRASKA, among others. It also stars Paul Giamatti who teamed with Payne 20 years ago for SIDEWAYS. How can it not be good?
We all know some authority figure from our school days who was not very well liked by anyone, whether students or faculty. Giamatti’s character fits that description perfectly. He plays Paul Hunham, a professor at the Barton Academy, who insults his pupils at every turn and is on thin ice with the school’s headmaster, played by Andrew Garman.
When Christmas break at Barton beckons, everybody gets to go home to their families --- well, almost everyone. Hunham has no one. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a student at the school, is told by his mother and stepfather that they are going away for Christmas. Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, lost her son Curtis who was recently killed in Vietnam. These three vastly different personalities are thrown together for a couple of weeks, more or less trapped inside the school.
Screenwriter David Hemingson took over the writing duties Payne usually reserves for himself. The result is what Hemingson calls the theme of the movie, that is, “how quiet, everyday heroism changes lives”. Payne had an excellent script to work with, and the entire cast credits his enthusiasm on set and his easy-going attitude that put every actor at ease. THE HOLDOVERS is Payne’s first period piece, of which he says it’s “the closest thing you can do to time travel”.
Giamatti, of course, can do no wrong. He is the ultimate actor whether doing comedy or drama. Most recently his work in TV’s “Billions” is proof enough. THE HOLDOVERS represents the screen debut for Sessa whom the filmmakers found in the drama department at 226-year-old Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts after 800 audition tapes from around the world failed to impress. Randolph is an accomplished stage, film and TV actress who carries her character’s grief with dignity and even some humor.
Of the supporting cast, Carrie Preston plays Lydia Crane, a school administrator and part-time waitress. She will be recognized from TV’s “The Good Wife” and its spinoff “The Good Fight” as somewhat daffy attorney Elsbeth Tascioni. In THE HOLDOVERS she is a delight, showing some interest in Hunham that makes him realize he’s not a total loser. And the school’s likeable janitor, Danny, is played by Naheem Garcia who is sweet on Mary.
I found Payne’s attention to detail particularly interesting during a bowling alley scene --- not just any bowling alley but one with candlepin lanes. Most people associate bowling with ten pins. However, I grew up in Boston with candlepin bowling. Tall and thin, still ten pins to knock down, but you get three tries with a ball small enough to hold in the palm of your hand.
Most importantly, THE HOLDOVERS is not at all maudlin, a credit to Hemingson’s screenplay. And Giamatti’s character exhibits just enough empathy to show his humanity, especially towards Angus.
Opinion: See It Now!