The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE HOLDOVERS | The Movie Waffler


A prep school lecturer bonds with a troubled student and the school cook when the three remain on campus over the Christmas holidays.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Gillian Vigman

The Holdovers poster

While it's essentially a reworking of a French movie from the 1930s (Marcel Pagnol's Merlusse), Alexander Payne's The Holdovers is very much a love letter to American cinema of the 1970s. It's a character based drama of the sort favoured by those filmmakers on the second tier of New American Cinema - Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, John Cassavettes - but it also has the textured melancholy of the works of those sadly now forgotten American filmmakers who worked on a lower tier of the era - Dick Richards, Buzz Kulik, John Hancock et al. Some of its affectations are a bit much (the film opens with a blue band and the early '70s Universal logo, and later shoehorns in a Cat Stevens song), but it nails the '70s preoccupations with curbed freedoms, the horrors of Vietnam and the uncertainty of living in the first time in modern history when America viewed its president with contempt.

The Holdovers review

Writer David Hemingson takes elements from an unsold TV pilot Payne had previously stumbled across and mixes them with the basic premise of Merlusse, that of a cantankerous teacher being charged with looking after the students left behind at his boarding school over the Christmas holidays. The setting here is a boys' boarding school in 1970 New England (the timeless nature of which aids the period verisimilitude). Classics professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is as unloved by his pupils as by his fellow faculty members, who view him as more Mister Potato Head than Mister Chips. As he rarely leaves the campus due to social anxiety and depression, he's lumbered with keeping an eye on 17-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa), a rebellious smartass who has been kicked out of several previous schools. Despite the threat of being sent to military school, which could lead to deployment in Vietnam, Angus can't help but continue to lash out, his anger fuelled by his mother's shunning him in favour of his new stepfather. Acting as referee between this bickering pair is the school cook, Mary (Da'Vine Randolph), who is grieving the death of her own son in Vietnam.

Payne and Hemingson embrace clichés as old as Dickens, with Paul in the Scrooge role, but the film's sentiment is very much in keeping with its fealty to '70s cinema. Its sentimentality is of a quietly melancholic nature that never peels any cheap onions in the hopes of provoking tears. All three of its protagonists are quietly resigned to being let down by life, which gives the film's simple moments of joy - like the one that involves an improvised cherry liquor cake - an extra resonance.

The Holdovers review

In keeping with its '70s stylings, the harshness of reality hits equally hard in points, like the crushing moment when Paul discovers the female teacher he fooled himself into thinking might harbour romantic feelings towards him is revealed to have a stereotypically hunky boyfriend. The immediate heartache followed quickly by resignation on Giamatti's face echoes that of Alan Arkin's similar revelation regarding Sally Kellerman in Dick Richards'forgotten gem Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Just like Arkin in that film, Paul quickly picks himself up from romantic disappointment and devotes himself to strengthening platonic bonds, loosening up and opening his heart to Angus and Mary with a revelatory trip to Boston.

It's a role Giamatti was born to play, a cob of anxiety wrapped in a duffel husk. We're never quite asked to pity Paul though, certainly not as much as he pities himself, as we're reminded of his relative privilege. His woes are contemplative rather than immediate like the grief of Mary. Yet we understand his torment, that of an intellectual man denied emotional pleasures. If Giamatti's Paul is the film's overthinking brain, Randolph's Mary is its heart, tempering Paul's torment with a homely wisdom that Randolph astutely ensures never quite crosses the line into "Magic Negro" territory. Mary doesn't tell Paul anything he doesn't already know. She just expresses it in a softer voice. Paul tries to impart learned advice of "it gets better" to Angus, but like any teen, it seems like a fabricated lie adults insisting on propagating. In his debut, Sessa is never overwhelmed by the other parts of this triumvirate.

Like the films of Korea's Hong Sang-soo, The Holdovers often has the atmosphere of a classic Peanuts special. It's largely made up of vignettes. The ground is covered in snow. A football plays a part in a brief comic moment. A piano is tinkled. All three of its characters are Charlie Brown, but they act as each other's Snoopy, raising spirits with a metaphorical lick of the face. Those seeking a classic American character drama need not worry about Payne pulling the football away at the last moment.

The Holdovers is on UK/ROI VOD from February 19th.

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