Although Barton Academy headmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman) thinks his ancient history professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a good teacher, he’s frustrated by the man’s inflexibility, Hunham having recently lost them a generous donation when he flunked a senator’s son. The professor, who went to Barton himself as a boy, is disliked by both faculty and students, a curmudgeon who refuses to let anyone skate, so there is concern all around when he is tapped to be responsible for the students who have no where to go for Christmas, “The Holdovers.”
Laura's Review: B+
When director Alexander Payne ("Election," "The Descendents") received a series pilot script by TV writer David Hemingson ('Kitchen Confidential,' 'Whiskey Cavalier'), it was so close to what he’d had in mind for his next film, he asked him to turn it into a feature, specifically fashioning the lead character to reunite with his “Sideways” star. He was also determined to make his film feel like it was made in the 1970 of the story’s setting, something not only immediately evident when the film begins, but even in its trailer (craftspeople, like cinematographer Eigil Bryld ("In Bruges"), used period lenses while sound mixer David J. Schwartz designed an analog soundtrack paying careful attention to room acoustics).
Shot entirely in Massachusetts, the nostalgia of the season comes through in an establishing shot as snow falls gently on a picture perfect New England village (Shelburne Falls and its flower bridge). Cutting to Hunham’s apartment we glean much about the man surrounded by books, a bottle of booze on his desk, a manual typewriter beside it and a vintage tube of Preparation H prominently displayed on his bathroom sink. It is the last day of school and while everyone is letting their students out early, Hunham is handing out failing grades on a recent test, only Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa, a senior drama student at Deerfield Academy where the film was actually shot) earning a B+. When Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner, "The Black Phone") objects to his grade, Hunham surprisingly relents, offering a different make-up test that will require additional reading over the holiday break, but Tully messes up their chances by complaining that the homework will distract from his St. Kitts vacation, an unpopular move to say the least.
As everyone departs, Hunham learns he will be left with Kountze, rich jock Jason Smith (Michael Provost) in a standoff with his dad over his long hair and first year kids Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan), a friendless Korean boy, and Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley), whose parents are away on an LDS mission. Imagine everyone’s surprise when a raging Tully reenters with his suitcase, having just been informed by his mom that the trip to St. Kitts will now be a honeymoon for her and his new stepdad. As the school is turning off heat in most of its buildings during the shut down, everyone must bunk in together in the school infirmary, their meals prepared by head cook Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, "Dolemite Is My Name") from what’s left in the larder. Mary, who took the job at the school years ago in order to arrange for a good education for her son Curtis, is in mourning, the boy, a good student who couldn’t financially avoid the draft, recently killed in Vietnam. She’s staying because Barton is where she feels closest to him.
We begin to see parallels between Hunham and Tully, who immediately gets into a battle with bully Kountze, yet shows kindness to lonely Park when the frightened boy wets his bed. The only thing all five boys agree on is that they want to escape, something granted when Smith’s dad relents, arriving in his helicopter and offering to take them all on a ski holiday. But once again, Tully’s parents fail him, Hunham unable to contact them to get permission for him to leave. Now, the stage set, the film begins in earnest, three lonely people (plus maintenance man Danny (Naheem Garcia), carrying a torch for Mary) about to form a family.
Perhaps because of similarities they have yet to discover, Hunham and Tully are at each other’s throats, but Mary, whom Hunham joins in the evening for The Newlywed Game and whiskey, advises empathy for a boy alone at Christmas. When Tully’s challenge to Hunham’s authority results in a dislocated shoulder, Hunham appeases him with a trip to the local town diner, where they both discover kindly school administrator Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston, TV's 'Claws') waitressing and are invited to her Christmas Eve party which Mary is already attending. It proves fateful, reverberating into the film’s last act. The three enjoy a Christmas ham the next day with Hunham’s last minute Charlie Brown Christmas tree and awkward gifts, but yet again, he’s encouraged by Mary to grant the boy’s real wish – a trip to Boston. Using field trip funds, the three set off, Mary dropped off at her sister’s in Roxbury, while Hunham and Tully see the sights and learn about each other’s mutual trauma. But Tully has a secret agenda and, in granting it, Hunham’s life is about to change drastically.
While there is never any doubt where this film is headed, it’s a lovely, moving story infused with holiday spirit about broken people making each other whole again. Giamatti is perfection in a role custom tailored for him, making it possible to both see why Hunham is disliked while also empathizing with him. Watch not only his expression, but his body language, when he begins to hope for romantic love only to realize he’d misread the cues. Sessa is a real find and holds his own with the pros, a feral looking, gawky young man whose abrasive tendencies are smoothed over given a little kindness. Joy Randolph is their grounding anchor, yet has her own moment of intense need which is immediately met. Carrie Preston proves a secret weapon, her perky, open-armed warmth just what is needed to lift spirits.
“The Holdovers” is a warm hug of a throwback bound to become a Christmas classic.
Robin's Review: B+
8000 miles away, the Vietnam War rages on. But, life at Barton, a prep school in New England, goes on much as it always has. Such is the plight of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a history teacher at the school who, at Christmas break, learns that he has the uninviting job of babysitting the students not going home for the holidays in “The Holdovers.”
If you take a look at Alexander Payne’s filmography, you will see that while not all of his work is great, like “Election (1999)” and “Sideways (2004),” all of them are varying degrees of good. “The Holdovers” falls into the latter category, mainly because it is predictable from start to finish. But, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Paul is not the most popular teacher at Barton. He is not even a favorite history teacher, rubbing his students and the rest of the faulty the wrong way. As such, he is the perfect candidate to oversee those few not going home for Christmas break – he does not have a life of his own and lives to be a teacher at Barton.
He settles in with his five wards, including school bright boy, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), as they prepare for the dull holidays. Then, a helicopter shows up to whisk one of the other students to go vacation with his parents. The rest of the stay-at-schoolers, with parental permission, are all invited on the luxury trip. Angus does not have, and cannot get, his mother’s permission. Tully and, by extension, Paul, must stay at the school for the duration.
Joining them is the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is also staying through the break. She lost her only son and child to the War and has no reason to celebrate Christmas, or anything else. Mary’s entry into the story gives it a nice, though very melancholy, tone - you can feel her pain and loss, and stoicism.
So, you have three lonely people put in a place where that loneliness is compounded by the deserted school setting. This is where the story’s predictability pays off for the filmmakers as the tale follows a positive path. You know, in your heart, that all will work out for our trio of lost souls and Payne does not disappoint.
Each of the three principles has a solid character arc as they each must face their own inner demons. The good thing, as the story unfolds, is that they have each other, whether they know it or not. This makes for a feel good family story with good characters well played.
Paul Giamatti gives a yeoman’s performance as a sad man who depends on his job to define himself – and has not done such a good job, so far. Newcomer Dominic Sessa is convincing as the smart kid left behind by his mother for the holidays so she can go on her honeymoon with her new husband. Angus is all alone for Christmas, without family there, so guess who fill in the roles.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as Mary, is many things in this platonic triangle. She, though sad beyond belief for her loss, is the anchor that holds the impromptu little family together and allows them to have the best Christmas vacation ever. And, they do, making this a different family Christmas Story.
Focus Features releases "The Holdovers" in select theaters on 10/27/23, expanding into limited release on 11/3/23 and wide on 11/10/23.