Film Review: “The Holdovers” — Learning Their Lessons

By Tim Jackson

The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne. Now playing at AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Somerville,and Kendall Square Theaters

Director Alexander Payne and star Paul Giamatti excel at this kind of character-driven comedy/drama.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Giamatti, and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers.

A preview of Alexander Payne’s new film, The Holdovers, was screened last Tuesday night with the director in attendance before an enthusiastic crowd that included many of the crew (the actors’ strike kept many of the cast from attending). A fresh 35mm print was the perfect vehicle for a film set in 1971 — there was none of the overly crisp resolution of a modern digital projection print. Along with a mono soundtrack, cinematographer Egil Bryld (In Bruges) and production designer Ryan Warren Smith (True Detective) used area locations to recreate a New England of that era: the focus is on the warm wooden interiors of various prep schools and snowy Boston streets. The Somerville Theatre, which hosted the screening, was featured in one scene, though Payne confessed that the exterior shots were done at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre.

It is always gratifying to see our home turf on the big screen, but despite the local color, the film stands alongside Payne’s best work. As in Sideways, About Schmidt, and Nebraska, The Holdovers is a midlife coming-of-age story. For the first time after Election, he returns to the world of academia. The pastoral setting is Barton Academy, a fictional, elite prep school that is based on several different New England institutions. The spotlight is initially on Paul Giamatti, who plays the curmudgeonly Paul Hunham (the character’s name sounds like an imperious professor clearing his throat). He is returning final exams with grades that are wilting the students’ egos. Barton is a school that Hunham attended and has taught at for years. His holier-than-thou pomposity, which often takes the form of a dismissive attitude toward the wealth and privilege of his students, borders on cruelty. We learn that his perpetual dissatisfaction hides a crippling frustration with his own stunted career. Ever poised to clamp down on rule breakers, the teacher wields Latin phrases, literary references, and sarcasm like weapons. The actor’s crisply assured delivery and physicality — bug eyes and shuffling, stiff-armed gait — make this one of Giamatti’s most engaging and oddly lovable characters.

Hunham, due to earlier indiscretions, is charged by the headmaster with monitoring the “holdovers”: those boys who cannot go home over the Christmas holiday. Each one of the adolescents has family issues, but Hunham offers no sympathy. Eventually, one boy’s father sends in a helicopter to transport the remaining students to their homes. That leaves only Angus Tully behind; his mother and stepfather prefer a private holiday. Except for an occasional visit from a school custodian, there are now only three holdovers — Tully, Hunham, and Mary Lamb, the campus chef.

Dominic Sessa plays Tully in his first movie role. Casting an inexperienced young actor alongside Giamatti was a risk and it paid off. Payne directed Sessa not to act but to “be.” Quoting a French actor, the director advised the rookie: “Be still on the outside and busy on the inside.” The result: we sense that some suppressed emotion might bubble to the surface — and it does, on occasion. More often, we are pulled in to empathize with what we imagine is going on in the boy’s head.

Giamatti’s diminutive and droll fuddy-duddy is set up as a contrast with Tully’s lanky and soft-spoken Sessa. Yet both characters are revealed to be academically brilliant as well as bullheaded. The movie revolves around the pair’s constant battle to challenge one another’s authority. Hunham screams about following the rules; his sole charge challenges his every stricture.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as Mary Lamb, is a rare Black face on a white campus. She assumes the role of mother to what grows into an ad hoc, dysfunctional family. Like Tully and Hunham, she has personal trauma to contend with. Unable to afford college tuition, her son went to fight in Vietnam, where he died. The boys to whom she serves daily meals could afford to duck military service during the war. Her no-nonsense advice to Hunham and Sessa reflects what she has learned through a life of real struggle. Puffing on and gesturing with her ever-present cigarette, Mary is a well-crafted character that doesn’t descend into stereotype — she steers clear of sentimental clichés. She becomes the heart and soul of the trio, bringing the egotistical combatants back to earth with a casual glance and some realpolitik advice.

The somewhat improbable name of Mary Lamb is no doubt intentional. The narrative of the film resonates with the third verse of the well-known children’s nursery rhyme:

And so the teacher turned him out.

But still he lingered near

And waited patiently about

Till Mary did appear.

“What makes the lamb love Mary so?”

The eager children cry.

“Why Mary loves the lamb, you know,”

The teacher did reply.

Mary’s story is left unresolved; the assumption is that she will carry on. The Holdovers is not her movie, but her presence is critical to the film’s cathartic action — human connection is nurtured by the heart, not the mind. Both professor and student are dealing with unresolved family/father issues, grappling with a common emotional challenge that becomes increasingly obvious as their adversarial relationship begins to soften.

Payne is in very familiar thematic territory here, examining coming-of-age difficulties, late-in-life self-awareness, and the damage done by dysfunctional families, particularly hardhearted fathers. Thankfully, David Hemingson’s witty screenplay — through its smart avoidance of easy resolutions — elevates the predictable plot of this character driven comedy/drama.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

1 Comment

  1. Gary Duehr on November 10, 2023 at 7:23 am

    Thanks for making this case! I too love movies shot locally, and it sounds like there is plenty of nuance. I had decided to pass based on the trailer, with its tired “teacher learns life lesson from student” trope. But now I’ll give it a try.

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