As part of our coverage of the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Alexander Payne’s touching period drama ‘The Holdovers.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
Set in the early days of the 1970s, The Holdovers follows Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a lazy-eyed and universally disliked classics professor at the prestigious Barton Academy, a boarding school for boys near Boston, Massachusetts. With carols echoing through the halls and snow gently falling on the quad, the student body eagerly awaits the holiday reprieve. That is, save for an unlucky few. For a handful of reasons, a gaggle of students are unable to return to their families over the break. These “holdovers” are placed into the care of one unlucky teacher who is tasked with the unenviable job of babysitting a handful of kids whose parents said “no backsies.”
When Professor Hunham is saddled with the task, both he and his reluctant wards are less than pleased with the arrangement. But Hunham is in the headmaster’s debt, so he agrees. The brats, for their part, don’t have a choice. That is, until one of the kids’ dads lands his helicopter on school grounds, and whisks all the students away to a ski resort save one: Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose unreachable mom and stepdad failed to give consent. And so, grumpy Professor Hunham, rebellious Angus Tully, and the school’s kind but weary head cook Mary are left to their own devices. Steadily, the tightly wound rules begin to relax and personal histories begin to worm their way out into the open.
The Holdovers’ greatest magic trick, for my money, is Giamatti’s ruthlessly humane characterization of Professor Hunham. The film could have so easily slipped into the well-worn groove of a cruel, curmudgeonly authority figure un-hardening his heart. But neither director Alexander Payne nor Giamatti — who reunite for the first time since 2004’s Sideways — are capable of cutting corners and making Paul Hunham anything less than three-dimensional.
He’s a stickler for tradition and rules, sure. But his blood alcohol content has a Jim Beam trademark on it. He’s a man of principle and tradition, yes. But he’s not above bending rules and changing his mind when appropriate. All told: his reasons for being such a hardass feel lived-in and plausible; his annoying ticks and sadistic pedagogy rooted in complexities that culminate in a painful, refreshingly empathetic portrait of a broken guy doing his best.
As the troubled Angus Tully, Sessa holds his own with his more experienced cast members. He does a marvelous and credible job as a young man whose intellectual promise is marred by familial tragedy and justified teenage rage. He’s a talent to keep an eye on (the good eye if you would).
But it’s the performance of Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who plays the prep school’s head chef, Mary, that deserves special attention. The film’s writer, David Hemingson, was wise to carve out the space for Mary Lamb. I’ll admit, I feared that her trauma and pain — both as a grieving mother and as a lower-income Black employee at a fancy mostly white prep school — would be relegated to temporal set-dressing. Or worse: as fuel for the development of our white male protagonists. To my relief, and surprise, Mary is very much front and center and her grief and healing remain very much her own. To a degree, the contrast Mary’s story offers can’t help but impact Tully and Hunham. But her autonomy is undeniable. She has far too much dynamism, screen time, and personal growth to be dismissed as a “there as a teachable lesson” character.
After the uncharacteristically terrible Downsizing, The Holdovers marks an unequivocal return to form for its director. He is clearly in his element directing a tale of a principle-bound rule-follower who softens up under the right circumstances. Eigil Bryld’s firmly nostalgic cinematography (coupled with some strikingly on-point production design from Ryan Warren Smith) places The Holdovers in good company alongside other, older boarding school dramedies.
All told, The Holdovers tells a delicate, ruthlessly empathetic story about the misleading nature of first impressions and how secret shames and enduring wounds tend to make us more alike than not. It’s the kind of film that cynics should watch after Thanksgiving dinner, warm brandy in hand, as a reminder that the holidays suck, yes. But being alone during the holidays sucks even more.
‘The Holdovers’ is currently slated for a November 10th release.