Sideways star and director reunite for simply great film The Holdovers
Some filmmakers have the good fortune of being able to make a movie every couple of years or so, and some have to wait years for their next project to come to fruition. Whether by choice or by circumstance, director Alexander Payne tends to go years before putting out a new film; his latest, The Holdovers, comes out almost a full six years after his previous film, 2017’s Downsizing.
Unlike that film, in which Payne tried to infuse his sensibilities on a high concept idea, The Holdovers finds him back in simple – but not simplistic – storytelling mode, and reunited with actor Paul Giamatti, who starred in his popular 2004 film Sideways.
Set in 1970 at a private New England boarding school called Barton Academy, The Holdovers centers on history teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a curmudgeon whose life revolves around the school. Unfortunately for him, that makes him an easy target to be the chaperone for those kids who aren’t able to go home for the Christmas holidays (aka the holdovers).
This particular winter starts off with a handful of such students, but winnows down to just Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), whose mother and her new husband have shunned him in favor of a romantic vacation. Hunham, Tully, and cafeteria worker Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) have no choice but to form a sort of odd family during the break, getting on each other’s nerves and bonding in equal measures.
Written by David Hemingson (making it only the second time Payne has not written a movie he’s directed), the film has an enormous number of small pleasures and heartbreaks. The satisfaction Paul gets in torturing his students through assignments and detentions is consistently funny. And because turnabout is fair play, the demands Angus puts on Paul, especially when their group goes down to three, are equally entertaining, forcing Paul into situations he rarely finds himself.
But Payne and Hemingson are just as interested in touching your heart as they are in making you laugh. As the film goes along, the personal lives of Paul, Angus, and Mary are peeled back bit by bit. The more you get to know each of them, the more you understand that each of them is a type of lonely soul whose life is enriched by them being together, especially during the holidays.
With an antagonistic relationship between a high school teacher and a student, as well as Giamatti playing a cranky person with one distinct passion, the film has echoes of two of Payne’s best films, Sideways and 1999’s Election. But it becomes its own thing thanks to its unique trio, the setting in the cloistered environment of a boarding school, and its slowly-evolving story that reveals a ton of heart.
Giamatti and Payne seem to share a certain sensibility that leads to a great performance. Giamatti knows exactly how irritable to make his character without being off-putting, but he also uses his face in ways few others can. Sessa is a great find, easily matching wits with Giamatti and holding the viewer’s gaze throughout. Randolph becomes the soul of the film, easing the tension between the two men and offering a hard-earned wisdom that elevates the story.
The Holdovers is so good that it’s infuriating that Payne hasn’t made more movies than the eight on his filmography. At 62, he’s once again found the voice that made him an indie hit in the early 21st century; here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another six years for him to share it again.
The Holdovers opens in theaters on November 10.