Film: “The Holdovers” directed by Alexander Payne
Whenever Alexander Payne’s name is attached to a movie, I know an interesting story is about to unfold. His latest film, “The Holdovers,” is not unlike “Election, “Little Children” or “Sideways”, often chock full of lines that have since entered our lexicon (e.g., “I am NOT drinking any f*cking Merlot!”)
The setting for “Holdovers” is a private academy for boys located in snowy New England (a la “Dead Poets Society”), and the time is Christmas 1970. The students are preparing to head home for the holidays, except for five unfortunate souls who for some reason or another are stuck on campus. Drafted to oversee them is the curmudgeonly Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a pompous, alcoholic classics professor who refers to his students as “hormonal vulgarians.” He smells funny, breaks into Greek and Latin to insult them, and admits he’s just as unhappy to be there as they are.
But hark! Four of the five kids get a last-minute reprieve. This leaves Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a problematic, smart-mouth brainiac who’s already been kicked out of three other private schools, as Hunham’s sole charge over Christmas.
Keeping them company is the school’s wisecracking cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who’s not exactly in a festive mood. She’s grieving for her son Curtis who was recently killed in Vietnam. As Hunham notes, “Kids at Barton go on to Harvard, Yale and Cornell; ones like Curtis get sent to Vietnam.” (Curtis was Black and couldn’t afford Swarthmore.)
Through a series of events including a Christmas Eve party and a quick trip to Boston, Hunham and Angus gradually warm up and learn something about each other. While on the surface this may seem a bit conventional, there are enough funny moments—and tender ones—to keep you engaged.
Fans of Paul Giamatti know he can do anything. But he seems to specialize in characters who are difficult (see also “Sideways” and “Billions.”) Randolph, who played the policewoman in “Only Murders in the Building,” gives Mary a perfect mix of abrasiveness, delicacy and saltiness. The real revelation, however, is Sessa who auditioned for and won the role of Angus while still a student at Deerfield Academy, where the film was shot. Sessa is a natural at portraying an adolescent kind of perceptiveness and has reportedly entered an acting program at Carnegie-Mellon.
“The Holdovers” isn’t a best-film-of-the-year kind of movie; it’s a leisurely, character-driven film that captures the zeitgeist of the early 1970s in America without being heavy-handed. Although the movie was shot digitally, Payne and Danish cinematographer Eigil Burke added effects to achieve the coziness of 35-millimeter. Imagine—no CGI or avenging superheroes in a movie—and scored with soulful, early-70s rock and roll. Grab your popcorn.
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