Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Holdovers


Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, The Holdovers is the story of a New England boarding school teacher who spends the Christmas holidays chaperoning kids who are forced to stay at school as he deals with a troubled student as well as a school cafeteria manager. The film is a comedy-drama set in the early 1970s where a strict teacher copes with his own life as he would unknowingly forge a bond with one of his students and the cafeteria manager who is grieving over the loss of her son in the Vietnam War. Starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, and introducing Dominic Sessa. The Holdovers is a rich and riveting film from Alexander Payne.

Set during the Christmas holidays in 1970 at a New England boarding school in Barton, the film follows a curmudgeon ancient history teacher who is asked to stay at the school to watch over students who are unable to go home for the holidays where he deals with a troubled student who becomes a holdover at the last minute. It is a film that explores a teacher that many don’t like as he doesn’t think highly of the students as he doesn’t care who their parents are as he would befriend one of these students who is forced to stay at school because his mother is taking a vacation with her new husband at the last minute. David Hemingson’s screenplay is largely straightforward as it is set during the Christmas holidays of 1970 where Barton’s classic ancient history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is asked to stay at school to watch over the holdover students left for the holidays in an act of punishment for flunking a student whose father is a U.S. senator and an important school donor.

Staying with Hunham is the school’s cafeteria manager Mary Lamb, whose son Curtis was a student at the school as he was recently killed in Vietnam, as well as four other students. When another student in Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) becomes a holdover at the last minute because of his mother going on a vacation with her new husband. Things become tense as Tully already has issues with another student in Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) who often says terrible things as the holdovers are forced to study and not do much until a father of one of the holdovers arrive having contacted the parents to return home with only Tully staying behind because he couldn’t contact with his mother. It only adds the tension between teacher and student though it is clear that none of them want to stay at the school during the holidays while they also befriend Lamb who is going through her own issues. Still, the three deal with the situation as Tully isn’t just dealing with his hatred for his stepfather but also being vague about his own father as Hunham learns to loosen up despite several incidents with Tully.

Alexander Payne’s direction definitely harkens to a look and feel reminiscent of films from the 1970s in terms of its overall presentation though it was shot entirely on the digital Arri Alexa camera yet elements of grain and scratches were added to play into that look of 1970s cinema. Shot on various location in Massachusetts, Payne wanted to bring the sense of New England into the film in terms of its locations and accents while using very little sets for the film as everything was shot on location with the usage of wide and medium shots to get a scope of these locations including the main dining hall at the school as well as its chapel. Payne also maintains a sense of intimacy in his direction in how the main characters interact as well as watch TV or go on a rare social outing despite Hunham’s desire to follow the rules. Notably in the film’s second act where Hunham, Lamb, and Tully attend a Christmas Eve party hosted by the school headmaster’s assistant Miss Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) where things starts to loosen up despite Lamb’s melancholic mood.

Payne also maintains this mix of humor and drama with the former being something that is expected but it’s all about the timing as well as in Hemingson’s dialogue such as the way Hunham speaks classical Latin on occasion or the way Lamb would talk back as she never takes shit from anyone. Even as Christmas has arrived where Hunham tries to show that he’s not some authoritarian while is also trying to prove that he can loosen up. The film’s third act is a break from the world that is Barton as it plays into the main characters all wanting to do something different where they all learn something from each other. Notably as Hunham and Tully both realize their own similarities as well as the fact that there’s things in Barton that protects them from a world that is often quite cruel as the latter is dealing with a future that might be even more troubling. Yet, it is Hunham and Lamb that would help guide this young man in not just showing him a future as he would give these two adult figures a hopeful outlook in life. Overall, Payne crafts a majestic and somber film about a teacher, a cafeteria manager, and a student staying at school during the Christmas holidays.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld does incredible work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of natural light as well as maintaining a look that is reminiscent of 1970s American cinema as well as the usage of low-key lighting for the interior/exterior scenes at night. Editor Kevin Tent does brilliant work with the editing with its stylish usage of transition wipes, dissolves, and other stylish cuts as well as knowing when to cut for dramatic and comedic effect as it is a highlight of the film. Production designer Ryan Warren Smith, with set decorator Markus Wittmann and art director Jeremy Woolsey, does amazing work with the look of some of the rooms to play into the period of the 1970s as a lot of the rooms are actual rooms instead of sets while they also brought old TVs and such to play into the period of early 1970s. Costume designer Wendy Chuck does excellent work with the costumes from the dresses that Lamb wears outside of the school as well as the clothes that Hunham and Tully wear to display their personalities and how they would evolve later on.

Hair stylist Jennifer Douglas and makeup artist Scott Hersh do fantastic work with the look of the characters with the hairstyle of the students reminiscent of the look of the early 1970s as well as some of the minimal makeup including a contact lens for Hunham’s lazy eye. Special effects supervisor Adam Bellao, along with visual effects supervisors Andy Chang and Jasper Kidd, does terrific with some of the minimal effects such as a scene where Tully tries to antagonize Hunham while the visual effects are also minimal as it’s mainly set-dressing as well as creating scratches and such to play into the look of the 1970s. Sound designer Frank Gaeta does superb work with the sound in maintaining a naturalistic approach to the sound in the way music is played on a location as well as how quiet a room is as it plays into how empty the school is with only three people living there.

The film’s music by Mark Orton is wonderful for its folk-inspired score with elements of orchestral flourishes as it plays into the world that is the early 1970s while music supervisor Matt Aberle creates a soundtrack filled with music from that time period including some Christmas music and contributions from Cat Stevens, Shocking Blue, the Temptations, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Damien Jurado, the Allman Brothers Band, the Chamber Brothers, Labi Siffre, Andy Williams, Artie Shaw and his Orchestra, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, the Swingle Sisters, Khruangbin, and the Trapp Family Singers.

The casting by Susan Shopmaker is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Kelly AuCoin as a former classmate of Hunham he bumps into in Boston, Darby Lily Lee-Stack as Miss Crane’s niece whom Tully befriends, Gillian Vigman and Tate Donovan in their respective roles as Tully’s mother Judy and stepfather Stanley as the latter is someone Tully dislikes, Stephen Thorne as a man that Tully wants to meet in Boston, Naheem Garcia as the school janitor Danny whom Lamb is fond of, and Andrew Garman as the Barton headmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrup who doesn’t think highly of Hunham as he forces him to stay in school during the holidays. The trio of Michael Provost, Jim Kaplan, and Ian Dolley are terrific in their respective roles as the school’s football quarterback Jason Smith, the Korean student Ye-Joon Park, and the Church of Latter Day Saints student Alex Ollerman as three of the five holdovers who stay temporarily with Provost as a quarterback who is trying to maintain some peace while Kaplan and Dolley as young pre-teen students both dealing with not going home.

Brady Hepner is superb as Teddy Kountze as a classmate of Tully who often says awful things and is a total asshole to other students as he is the embodiment of entitlement as he is not liked by many. Carrie Preston is fantastic as Miss Lydia Crane as Dr. Woodrup’s assistant who also works at a local bar as she is someone that is often nice to everyone including Hunham as he has a thing for her. Dominic Sessa is incredible in his debut film role as Angus Tully as a junior who had hoped to go on a vacation for the holidays as he deals with staying at school as well as other issues. Sessa also has this charm and humility as someone who knows he’s a rich kid but is also someone that is danger of possibly going to military school while also having problems that Hunham would discover and become sympathetic for. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is phenomenal as Mary Lamb as the Barton school cafeteria manager whose son had attended the school as she is mourning his death at the Vietnam War while is also someone that isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Even as she also has Hunham to be less authoritative as well as also say some funny things that showcases why she won’t take shit from anyone.

Finally, there’s Pal Giamatti in a tremendous performance as Paul Hunham as a classics professor who teaches ancient history as this curmudgeon teacher who doesn’t think highly of his students while is also authoritative and prefers to do things his way. It is a performance that has Giamatti often quoting Latin and other old languages where he can be funny but also someone who is also vulnerable as he is someone that has secrets of his own. Even as it raises questions into his lack of a social life as well as why he continues to teach at Barton when he go somewhere else where Giamatti brings that humility but also wit in what is definitely a career-defining performance from him.

The Holdovers is a tremendous film from Alexander Payne that features a trio of great performances in Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa. Along with David Hemingson’s screenplay, a wondrous music soundtrack, its stylish visuals, and its mixture of humor and drama. It is a film that explores three different people stuck at a prep school during the Christmas holidays as they deal with themselves as well as a world that is confusing for them while dealing with loss and uncertainty. In the end, The Holdovers is an outstanding film from Alexander Payne.

Alexander Payne Films: Citzen Ruth - Election - About Schmidt - Sideways - Paris Je T'aime-14th Arrondissment - The Descendants - Nebraska - (Downsizing) – (Tracy Flick Can’t Win) – The Auteurs #5: Alexander Payne

© thevoid99 2024


SJHoneywell said...

I'm looking forward to this one. Hopefully getting to it by the end of the week.

thevoid99 said...

@SJHoneywell-I rented it on YouTube more than a week ago as my mother watched it with me as she liked the film as I thought it was great. I know Cillian Murphy is the front runner for Best Actor but I liked Giamatti's performance a lot more. Plus, I have Da'Vine Joy Randolph as my pick for Best Supporting Actress.

ruth said...

I'm so glad this film kept gaining traction all thru award season. It's such a wonderful gem of a movie and a new Christmas classic. Love the trio of Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and newcomer Dominic Sessa who I'm sure we'll hear more of.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It is a film that deserves to become a holiday classic as it's funny but also has a lot of heart. Plus, it's a great comeback for Alexander Payne due to the lackluster reaction towards Downsizing which had a good idea but didn't quite hit the landing in its execution.