Thank god for Alexander Payne. The filmmaker is, and always has been, a true humanist. A writer/director more interested in human beings, something that has always been the special effect of his movies. A two-time Oscar winning writer, his latest film, The Holdovers, which had its World Premiere Thursday at the Telluride Film Festival, is one of his rare movies in which he doesn’t have a writing credit. David Hemingson did the screenplay, but the idea, an inspired one, came from Payne, a real film buff who was always intrigued by Marcel Pagnol’s 1935 French film Merlusse about a group of boarding school students stuck over the holidays with a much-despised teacher. The director thought it had the bones for a new story and developed it with Hemingson.
Set in 1970, it is Payne’s first period film after a celebrated career for movies like Sideways, The Descendants, and many others. He has made some contemporary classics, no doubt, but the warm humanity of a trio of people left alone at Christmas in a snowy boarding school ranks right up there with his very best. It is funny, sad, witty, poignant, filled with snark and heart and great acting. It also manages to be a film set at the holidays that offers something truly new for the genre, and also delightfully not only evokes the period in which it is set, but also purposely looks like a movie made then.
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Right from the old MPAA rating logo, to opening credits and music that seem right from a movie released a half century ago, I felt like I was blissfully in some sort of time machine taking me back to the days when my friends and I would stand in long lines in Westwood to see the likes of The Sterile Cuckoo, The Paper Chase, Paper Moon, and Harold And Maude. Even Mark Orton’s wonderful music score sets the tone with a Fred Karlin-ish vibe that seems perfect for the snowy story set at Barton Academy, an Eastern boarding school where most of the students are heading out for the holidays to be with family. A handful are left behind and stuck with being supervised on campus by Adjunct Professor of Ancient History Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a curmudgeonly teacher who basically fails his students for not living up to his own impossible standards, and now is paying the price for flunking the kid of one of the school’s biggest benefactors. With no wife or kids or family of his own, he is told to stay and chaperone these “holdovers.”
Left alone with five male students and school cook Mary Lamb (the divine Da’Vine Joy Randolph) whose 20-year-old son recently died while on military duty, Hunham turns it all into a nightmare for them as he insists the students keep studying even during this break. The students can’t stand him.
As luck would have it, one of the kid’s rich father has a change of heart, helicopters in, and even volunteers to take all the other kids along with them on a ski trip. Unfortunately Hunham can’t get hold of Angus Tully’s (newcomer Dominic Sessa) mom and new stepfather, and so without permission Tully is the only one left behind. In their own lonely way each of the three now has no family – Hunham never married, Mary is grieving her son, and Angus was abandoned for the holidays by his honeymooning mom and stepdad. Hunham and Mr. Tully (as the teacher calls Angus) are at each other’s throats constantly.
There is little to do at the empty school. Hunham even winds up watching The Newlywed Game reruns with Mary to have some human interaction. Slowly we seen this unlikely trio becoming its own kind of family by default, but things gets complicated later on when Hunham reluctantly agrees to take Angus on a field trip to Boston, something Angus had been promised by his parents before they ditched him, and that turns a bit disastrous all around.
No startling story twists are in The Holdovers. It is the stuff of everyday lives with people thrown together by circumstances they have to make the best of. Giamatti, who so memorably starred in Payne’s 2004 Sideways, has never been better in the role of a Barton Academy lifer (he was a student there at age 15) who has never had much else and is very stuck in his ways, a brilliant intellect on ancient history without much history of his own to talk about. This is perfect casting and Giamatti plays the brilliantly written dialogue like a Stradivarius.
Randolph is simply wonderful, saying more with a look than any words could ever do. She is enormously touching and earns our tears along the way. Sessa, who was discovered on a casting search in the drama department of a school like the one in the movie, has never acted in front of a camera before and turns out to be a complete natural. This is one of those debut performances that just pops. The kid will have a big career after this.
Among the supporting cast, Carrie Preston is warm and very fine as a school administrator moonlighting over the holidays as a waitress who invites the trio to a Christmas party. Michael Provost, Brady Hepner, Jim Kaplan and Ian Dolley are the Holdovers who get lucky. Each has his moment before the group gets to exit. Tate Donovan, Gillian Vigman, Andrew Garman, and especially Naheem Garcia as a lonely janitor with an eye for Mary, briefly get their own spotlights.
Producers of the Focus Features and Miramax Films production are Mark Johnson, Bill Block , and Hemingson. It is going to be a great gift to moviegoers this holiday season.
Title: The Holdovers
Distributor: Focus Features
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Release Date: October 27, 2023
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: David Hemingson
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Tate Donovan, Gillian Vigman, Andrew Garman, Naheem Garcia
Running time: 2 hr 13 min
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