Something I continually enjoy about films by director Alexander Payne are his efforts to undercut himself. One can speak to how his stories can reach an emotional catharsis and what that says about the outstanding performances at the center of his films. However, just as The Holdovers continues to demonstrate, Payne is not at all above either a low-brow joke or the chance to let his actors suddenly curse up a storm in some sort of outburst, as if he needed to deliver a sharp jab to the audience because the gag was too good to let go of. Even here, in a period film that deals with loss and loneliness, Payne isn’t attempting to turn his boarding school-set feature toward tropes of a Dead Poets Society-type drama when he can clearly get much more mileage out of the way two misfits learn to bond on their own terms.
Set in the early 70s at the prestigious New England prep school, Barton Academy, Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham, a cranky instructor who has been tasked with supervising the students who cannot return home for the December holidays. Eventually, things narrow down to just one student, Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), who matches his clear intelligence with being a jerk. Also on hand is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head of the cafeteria, who recently lost her son to the Vietnam War and sympathizes with Angus, who is still grieving the loss of his father. Together, this trio will do all they can to make it through a time of year delivering more discomfort than joy, though perhaps some unexpected cheer (or at least alcohol) will get them through the winter break.
See Also: ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ Review: A Sweet and Nostalgic Adaptation of a Timeless Judy Blume Classic
A notable element is the use of a period setting. While the placement in the 70s allows the film to achieve some distance that makes its goals feel a bit more subtle when comparing aspects of this story to today, the visual aesthetic stuck out significantly. Opening with a classic style logo for a studio that didn’t exist before 2002, there’s an impression in mind that makes this film feel like an East Coast companion to the LA-set Licorice Pizza. Fortunately, it’s not just hairstyles and costume choices that indicate the 70s. It’s the casting. Suffice it to say that everyone has a face from this particular era. There’s no instance where this felt like supporting characters who look like models dressed to evoke a specific period. No, there’s a certain authenticity to every person we see, which speaks well for the movie’s commitment to everything from its production design choices to the screenplay.
Written by David Hemingson, who has primarily specialized in writing sitcoms (and there’s even a version of this film that could have gone down a similar path), there’s a sharpness to the dialogue and just enough edge to further suggest what Payne and Giamatti are up to. While the overall structure has to follow some sort of pattern, it’s the way these relationships evolve, the reasoning behind characters coming together or splitting apart, and a sense of attitude that is a major part of what makes the film as successful as it is. It is one thing to provide reasons for Giamatti’s Paul to warm to Angus over time, but it’s another to see them both break down what it is that makes them who they are and how much they have and haven’t changed into slightly altered iterations of their personas.
As their first collaboration since Sideways (and the snub for a Best Actor nomination still stings), Giamatti is entirely in his element as this irritable older teacher. He’s the kind of guy who assigns reading to his students just hours before the holiday break begins. Complete with a lazy eye and an indication that he apparently smells, it’s the sort of role that would be unsavory in the hands of a less gifted performer, and yet we instantly like Paul. Learning more about him as we go along and seeing his other side, as he begins to drink more and rebel against the establishment in his own way, enough comes through to provide all the additional layers to understand this guy and what has held him back. He’s also very funny, even if the characters around him (most of whom are stuck-ups) don’t feel the same way.
As an actor just getting started, Sessa was also excellent here. Unafraid of coming off as the moody teenager he is, here’s a guy whose awkward nature does plenty to help inform the comedy of it all. And even still, as the film delves further into what’s holding him up, we feel for this kid, yet still put ourselves in the middle of situations that have us understanding his actions yet wishing they could go a different way to stave off either random embarrassment or keeping it from affecting Paul.
That said, if there’s a true winner here, it’s DaVine Joy Randolph. Having found success in other comedic supporting roles in recent years, it’s great to see her back in line with her breakout role in Dolemite Is My Name, where the balance between having quick quips to dig at or talk back to the guys and knowing how to channel loss and sadness all feels so natural. This is the best kind of supporting performance that goes on to be awarded, as there’s just enough of Mary featured, the way she connects to these other characters is well staged, and there are the times when she really needs to shine that hit as hard as necessary on an emotional level.
On the grounds of being a comedy-drama that has important moments to signify what the next steps will be for these characters, Payne finds the ways in which this all feels true to the characters and the film being presented. Shot well, relying on a finely tuned script rightfully not concerned with “likeability,” The Holdovers feels very in line with Nebraska or About Schmidt. They are human comedies that find room for some outrageous moments, but not without consideration for why these intelligent characters are at a collective bottom in their souls. Fortunately, in the hands of fine filmmaking and strong performances, we’re happy to see them push themselves forward and find solace.