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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

The Holdovers

A cantankerous, unpopular teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti); a bright, abrasive student, Angus (Dominic Sessa); and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook and a recently bereaved mother, find themselves forced to spend the winter holiday together in an otherwise empty New England elite academy in Alexander Payne’s terrific, bittersweet throwback to the classic American cinema of the 1970s, The Holdovers.

It’s Payne’s finest film since Sideways (2004), and like it features a superb Giamatti performance as a stubbornly unlovable and difficult man.

The kinship with Sideways extends beyond the casting of Giamatti. Tellingly, both Paul in The Holdovers and Miles in Sideways are defined as much by what they haven’t done – both men are burdened by albatross-like unwritten book projects – as what they have achieved in life.

There is arguably no director currently working who has a better grasp of the framework of disappointment than Payne. His characters inhabit richly drawn worlds in which seemingly minor details come together in a reproachful chorus, a reminder that life could, and should, have been better.

A case in point: a shot of a tube of Preparation H haemorrhoid ointment casually on display in the bathroom of Paul’s private quarters at the school tells us more than the fact that he suffers from piles – it also suggests a barren social life. Paul has long ago given up on the possibility of spontaneous visitors.

Disappointment is the driving force behind Miles’s thin-skinned wine snobbery in Sideways; disappointment, with a side order of delusion, fuels Warren Schmidt’s camper-van voyage of self-discovery in About Schmidt. And it’s this shared experience of being let down by life, as much as the fact that they’re forced to spend the Christmas break together, that connects the characters in The Holdovers, helping them to tune into the unique frequencies of each other’s pain.

Paul has more or less accepted the fact that he is disliked by students and fellow teachers alike and has built a wall of books and barbed put-downs to hide behind. For Angus, already grieving the absence of his father in his life, the last-minute retraction of a promised holiday to Saint Kitts with his mother and her new husband has wounded him deeply – a fact that he tries and fails to hide behind a fusillade of adolescent sarcasm. But Mary’s plight is the rawest, something that Randolph captures brilliantly in the weary dignity of her character’s slow, achingly deliberate movements.

Mary, we learn, only took the job cooking for privileged rich kids who look down on her for her race and class so that her son could attend the school. But while his graduating classmates sailed into university places, her son was forced to serve in the army and was killed in Vietnam. Now every day at work is a reminder of what she has lost, and the prospect of her first Christmas without her child is paralysing. It’s no wonder that she numbs her pain with bourbon every night.

The crisp dialogue is a masterclass in capturing character voices – Paul, for example, has a seemingly bottomless well of insults for his students: they are “rancid little philistines” or “hormonal vulgarians”.

Words fail him, however, when he’s confronted with kindness: he practically slams the door in the face of a co-worker who presents him with the gift of Christmas cookies. But many of the film’s most affecting moments are dialogue-free: a wrenchingly sad shot of Mary carefully folding long-treasured baby clothes, her own dreams for the future mothballed and passed on to her pregnant younger sister. It’s a profoundly poignant moment that acknowledges the weight of disappointment Mary carries, while still permitting a glimmer of hope.

 So when someone is needed to babysit a handful of ‘holdovers’ over the holidays, pupils whose parents have more or less abandoned them during Christmas, it’s Paul who is stuck with the job. Spending the festive period with the gawky, sharp-tongued and inwardly raging Tully (Dominic Sessa), a young man abandoned by his mum and grieving his dad, immediately feels like hell for all concerned. What follows is a coming-of-age story for Tully and Paul.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph hits all the film’s major keys as the school’s bubbly but blunt cook, and some of the most touching minor ones, too. The death of her son in Vietnam haunts The Holdovers as much as that of Tully’s dad. All three characters are nursing broken hearts but their path to solidarity is never straightforward or predictable.

You might think you’ve got the measure of the crotchety Hunham straight away, with his wonky eye, elbow-patched jacket and pipe permanently clamped between his teeth. But Giamatti isn’t playing a type, so much as a man who has taken refuge inside one in order to armour himself against the more exposing aspects of human existence. It’s a riotous but also slyly moving performance of a performance – and, along with Randolph’s, is rightly being talked about for awards.

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