Alexander Payne has a distinguished filmography, full of small, character-focused stories, intimately told. His newest, “The Holdovers,” joins its predecessors (e.g. “Sideways,” “Election,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” “About Schmidt”) on the list of his beautifully crafted movies.
It stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, an ancient history teacher at Barton, a private boarding school in New England in 1970. He’s a tough, demanding teacher, disliked by all his students and most of his colleagues. At the Christmas break, the school’s administrator informs Hunham he’ll be in charge of five students who will be staying on the otherwise empty campus during the two weeks between semesters. To the boys’ consternation, Hunham immediately makes it clear he’ll be as much of a taskmaster as always, and there will be no downtime.
Naturally, this doesn’t go over well with the teens, all of whom come from privilege and are used to a sheltered, easy life. One of them, Angus (Dominic Sessa), is particularly upset because he was all set to go to St. Kitts in the Caribbean with his mother and stepfather. But at the last minute, she calls to inform him he won’t be joining them. To make matters worse, when the wealthy father of one of the other boys sends a helicopter to whisk his son and friends to a ski vacation, Hunham can’t reach Angus’ parents, so he’s not allowed to go.
Thus, the teacher and student are bound to each other, along with Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s chef, who also stays on campus because she’s recently lost her son — a Barton graduate — in the Vietnam War, leaving her nowhere else to go.
In any setup like this, you can be sure the student won’t be the only one learning some lessons, and that the frosty relationships will be thawed. But Payne’s too good a filmmaker to let “The Holdovers” slide into clichés. And, as he did in “Sideways,” he can lean heavily on the ever-reliable Giamatti, who plays Hunham as another curmudgeonly man beaten down by life, clinging to the traditions of the institution he graduated from, which has become his only home.
I first praised Randolph after seeing “Dolemite Is My Name” in 2019, when she shone opposite Eddie Murphy (my review is here). As in that movie, she’s so engrossing as Mary — a force to be reckoned with while still in need of emotional support — she makes every moment she’s on screen better. Late in the movie, she has a deeply intimate wordless scene that grabbed me fully by the heart. Of course, I won’t spoil it for you.
Sessa, in his movie debut, is quite a find. He brings Angus to life as a kid whose confidence and rebellious nature mask something darker, and his chemistry with Giamatti couldn’t be more natural. I’m sure we’ll be seeing him a lot over the next few years.
Though the screenplay is credited to David Hemingson (in his big screen debut), it’s clear Payne shaped it both verbally and visually. Everything about it feels era-appropriate, including the MPAA’s blue-screen R rating message that’s the first thing we see, followed by older-looking logos for Focus Features and Miramax. There’s even a 1971 copyright notice in the opening credits!
I was worried “The Holdovers” would have too many echoes of another private school classic, “Dead Poets Society,” but those faded the further we got into the story as connections between the characters changed over the course of two weeks. With Payne’s steady hand steering it delicately, “The Holdovers” stands strongly on its own. I particularly admired the way he allows the camera to stay on one person speaking at length without cutting away for reaction shots or other angles. That means he had confidence in his cast, and they were fully up to it, as they revealed the layers of their characters.
I give “The Holdovers” a 9 out of 10. It will have a place on my Best Movies Of 2023 list at the end of the year. Opens in theaters today.