by George Wolf
It’s the holiday season! The time of peace, joy, and goodwill!
Or…conflict, resentment, and spite.
Director Alexander Payne serves up plenty from group B in The Holdovers, a period comedy that also finds time to unwrap some warmth and understanding.
It is December 1970, and most of the boys at New England’s Barton boarding school are heading home for the two-week Christmas break. Circumstance has left five “holdovers” behind, where they will endure the disciplined regimen of Mr. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a bitter history teacher who delights in the misery of his rich, entitled students.
But through an additionally cruel twist of fate for the angry, young Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), the four other left behinds get sprung, leaving Angus alone with the cantankerous teacher the boys have nicknamed “Walleye.”
Well they’re not quite alone. Kitchen manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is on campus, too. Mary’s still mourning the loss of her son Curtis in Vietnam, and she has no room in her heart of festive merrymaking.
Giamatti is perfection as a man who seems to have forged a comfortable “hate-hate” relationship with life. Sessa impresses in his screen debut, giving depth to the rebellion that has brought Angus multiple expulsions from multiple schools. And Randolph brings plenty of weary humanity, crafting Mary as a heartbroken woman still trying to understand why her Curtis was deemed more expendable than these rich white boys who are preparing for college instead of war.
And as Mr. Hunham tells Angus that we “must begin in the past to understand the present,” David Hemingson’s script sends the three unlikely friends off on a “field trip.” The adventure will reveal how their respective pasts have shaped them, and how they may have more in common than they knew.
There are areas of contrivance that recall Hemingson’s extensive TV resume, but Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, The Descendants) grounds it all with a comfortable restraint that allows the actors and some terrific production design to work authentic moments of magic and laughter..
We all have a story. Life can be unfair, and most of us are struggling with something. Be kind.
Those are lessons that seem to resonate a little deeper this time of year, which means now is the perfect time to accept an invitation from The Holdovers.