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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

The Holdovers

Angus (Dominic Sessa) and Paul (Paul Giamatti) are stuck at school together in The Holdovers (Distributed by Focus Features)

Paul Giamatti, in his best roles, has a strange, sad, irascible charm to him. He has no patience for anyone yet, deep down, he wishes that weren’t true. This is the case for the characters he played in American Splendor and Sideways, among others. He plays such a man once again in The Holdovers, a Christmas-themed dramedy set in 1970 about a cranky teacher tasked with spending the holiday break babysitting some students who were left behind by their families. It is smart, likable, funny and lifted by a trio of great performances, most notably Giamatti, playing a character nobody can play like him.

Giamatti is Paul Hunham, the least popular teacher at the prestigious prep school Barton Academy. Neither the students nor the faculty can stand him. He has high standards and delights in using them to show his intellect/moral superiority. As punishment for failing the son of an influential politician, he is forced to stay in the otherwise empty school and watch the kids who unfortunately remain.

The second major character is Angus, played by an impressive newcomer named Dominic Sessa. Angus is intelligent, arrogant, entitled and overreacts to any provocation. Being one of Hunham’s students, they already greatly dislike each other, so neither is pleased when Angus’ mom bails on him at the absolute last second.

Then there is the school’s cook, Mary, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph with mild amusement and a massive amount of grief. Her son was tragically killed in Vietnam earlier in the year and she cannot fathom how she can move on without him. She does, however, like Paul, who treats her with a respect he affords basically no one else.

The Holdovers (129 minutes, minus the end credits) isn’t about plot. Not much really happens, in a traditional dramatic sense. Director Alexander Payne and writer David Hemingson are more interested in these people and how an unwanted couple of weeks together makes them reassess their lives. Insightful conversation, peppered with small revelations, are mixed with brief moments where the characters aren’t miserable. Payne uses pain, sadness and hopelessness, all constantly tinged with wit, as Paul looks inwardly to maybe understand why he’s so unhappy and Angus sort of connects with other human beings. Mary, meanwhile, is trying to carry on, despite devastatingly losing her purpose. Mary isn’t given as much attention as the male leads, but Randolph still steals nearly every scene she’s in anyway.

Paul with a gift for Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph)

Paul Giamatti has a way of making this grumpy, self-righteous, jerk likable. It helps that Paul is brilliant and Giamatti is very skilled with a caustic one-liner. He also lets the audience see past the irritable exterior that pushes everyone else away to find a beating heart underneath. Even if he tends to ignore it. It is oddly enjoyable hanging out with him for two hours.

Dominic Sessa is almost as good at allowing us to see Angus, flaws and all. He can be rude and selfish, but he is capable of surprising compassion. Payne asks for a lot of nuance and subtlety from his performers. Sessa (or his management team) did not choose an easy debut. I expect to see a lot more of him soon, after this.

Both men need to learn to show they actually care (and how to tolerate others better). They make a good pair. Add in Mary, whose life has been frozen by grief, and you have a group that doesn’t seem to fit together, yet are responsible for getting each other through the holidays in one piece. Payne clearly cares for these people. He never mocks them; instead, he seems to take pleasure in the occasions when they mock the frustrating idiots they encounter.

This is a story made with love, about people who don’t feel any coming their way. It is a Christmas movie, though it isn’t sweet. It’s emotional at the same level as its subjects. Even so, it is a quality holiday viewing option. Scratch that. It is just a really good viewing choice in general.

4 out of 5


Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham

Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully

Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb

Carrie Preston as Miss Lydia Crane

Directed by Alexander Payne

Written by David Hemingson


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