It’s bad business to have released Alexander Payne’s mournful holiday comedy, The Holdovers, several weeks after Christmas has ended. It’s not only a film about the season, but about its vivid, fleeting emotions – a Hallmark card vision of snowy, Seventies New England gives way to the loneliness of feeling moored in your own familiar comforts.
Payne’s return behind the camera follows his 2017 sci-fi comedy Downsizing, a film largely dismissed by critics, and features a second collaboration with his Sideways star, Paul Giamatti. It’s fairly comfortable territory for the director: a soft-barbed social satire aimed at the cynical and curmudgeonly, with charmingly literate gags provided by its screenwriter, television regular David Hemingson, and a sentimental heart that slips into tragedy with easy grace.
Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, the chief curmudgeon, who claims to have forgone sensual pleasures in the pursuit of loftier, spiritual goals. But his body’s still sore, and his mind is trapped within the walls of Barton Academy, where he teaches classical civilisation to a bunch of rich, “rancid little philistines” who refuse to follow his strict regimen of Marcus Aurelius and the Peloponnesian War. Giamatti gives a wonderful performance here. He roots his character’s frustrations not in cruelty but in misguided desperation – an eagerness to mould these boys into men better than himself.
As punishment for not taking it easy with a legacy kid (a “genuine troglodyte”, or so he claims), Paul is assigned as nominal caretaker of the students who can’t make it home for the holidays, the “holdovers” in question. Among them is the smartest but most plainly troubled boy in his class, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). His father is out of the picture – dead or divorced – and his mother has decided to embark on a last-minute honeymoon with her new spouse.
Sessa, in his professional debut, is an enlightened bit of casting bolstered by subtle onscreen work. You can immediately tell from the crooked, scarecrow angles of Angus’s posture, and the pained smirk when he talks, that there’s something terribly painful hidden in there. Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head chef, is the final addition to this trio of lost souls. She took the job at Barton to secure her son a scholarship. But they couldn’t afford his college fee, so he shipped out to Vietnam only to be sent home in a coffin. She’s here because it’s the closest she can stay to his memory.
Giamatti, Sessa, and Randolph share a warm rapport, enveloped by the wistful, vintage aesthetics of Payne’s homage to New Hollywood filmmakers of the Seventies, like Hal Ashby and Peter Bogdanovich – complete with a mono sound mix and custom-made studio logos.
It’s lovely, if a little practised. Yet, the real gutting here comes courtesy of the film’s miniature thesis on grief, and how privilege determines the channels of its pain. Angus has his scars, yet he’s a boy who can lash out, who can bicker with strangers over pinball etiquette and never think of the consequences. Mary’s avenues of expression are more sparse. The words of the school’s chaplain – “we accompany you in your grief” – ring hollow. But Payne, in a key moment, lets the camera drift into her space. And it’s then that Randolph allows Mary’s soul to blossom in full, a phenomenal outpouring of expression and the climax of an exquisitely controlled performance. The Holdovers, its edges trimmed in tinsel and lights, tries to find some sense of peace within these lonely, little islands.
Dir: Alexander Payne. Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner. 15, 133 minutes.
‘The Holdovers’ is in cinemas from 19 January