Film: The Holdovers
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston
A cranky history teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who works at a remote boarding school, is forced to remain on campus over the holidays with a troubled student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who has no place to go. The unlikely duo is saddled with a grieving cook, Mary (Da’Vine Randolph), for company. Doesn’t sound like much of a story but as Alexander Payne tells it, it becomes an embodiment of the Christmas spirit.
The narrative envisions transformations that envelop forgiveness and reestablishment of bonds with family, while centering its emotional heft around characters who are estranged from their families. Paul, Mary and Angus don’t have supportive families, so the three are left with no option but to create a makeshift family over Christmas.
Paul, Mary and Angus are good people at heart, but the world has been cruel to them, and each deals with the injustices in their lives in unique ways. Paul, labelled a Scrooge by his students, is bitter and angry at the world. Mary is grieving for her brilliant son who had to defer higher education only to get killed while in Vietnam. He was there only to save up for his future studies. Angus has rich parents but they don’t appear to have any time for him. There’s of course another story there.
The simple tale of three people getting stuck for the Christmas holidays in a boarding school during a bitterly cold winter is a heady brew for discontent. The adults drink a little too much while the students in their charge resort to delinquent behaviour and altercations with each other and their teacher, whom they love to hate.
During their forced incarceration together, the three main characters get to know each other, and the audience becomes privy to their emotional makeup. As the movie plays forward and through the many-layered depths of the screenplay, we get to feel the pain and frustration exhibited in their behaviour towards each other. The life lessons ensuing here are organic, and the narrative thereof is consistently funny. Giamatti is irascible in the earlier scenes, Randolph’s humour is not obvious but she manages to nail her punches and Sessa plays a delinquent with uninhibited joy.
Paul, Angus and Mary may be stereotypical Christmas tropes but their journey together is not. The intense drama, characterisations, and performances allied here lend specific authenticity to their journey, that evokes sentiment in its assay of a definitive, sensitive human story. The film has a strongly held-together emotional core with powerful and warm-hearted characters speaking potent lines, and is told with sincerity and grace that are altogether rare. There’s no gimmick at play here, neither is there any moment on screen where flashy editing or special effects take charge.
This is a moving, engaging and emphatically put-together film with superb unforgettable performances making the ensuing drama even more memorable.
Paul Giamatti as Hunham, the history teacher, plays the tormented and defensive man with relish. He speaks powerfully with his eyes, unique facial impressions and body language. His is a performance that deserves all the accolades it can get. Da’Vine Randolph’s Mary is also highly deserving. Her screen presence and emphatic control over emotion and expression are rare enough to garner her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Eigil Bryld uses the ’70s-era aesthetics to great effect. Mark Orton fashions a musical serenade with songs such as ‘Silver Joy’, ‘The Wind’, and a smattering of other compositions that suit the mood and moments depicted here.
This is also Alexander Payne’s most profound, non-judgmental work — ably accompanied by sharp and witty writing by David Hemingson. His narrative follows each character’s story with innate empathy, patience and curiosity. He allows us enough room and space to get to know these people as individuals and also witness their growth as human beings. Payne’s pitch-perfect direction helps keep the balance. Kevin Tent’s seamless editing and the stellar performances of the three leads make ‘The Holdovers’ one of the best films of the year.