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Thread: THE HOLDOVERS (Alexander Payne 2023)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE HOLDOVERS (Alexander Payne 2023)



    Stuck at boarding school at Christmas and making the most of it

    Payne's The Holdovers is an excellent film for its subtly nostalgic 1970-71 look, its fine acting, and the authentic emotion it winds up pulling out of what may seem on the face of it overly familiar material.

    It even has a period-feel trailer.

    We are at an an old New England boarding school over the Christmas holidays and the focus is some not-so-impressive boys and a teacher assigned to supervise them plus a couple of employees, one of whom, the cook, gets a lot of our time and emotion. The teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giammati) hates them and they hate him, and both have their reasons.

    For the fictional Barton Academy, the crew filmed on location at five different Massachusetts schools: Groton, Northfield Mount Hermon, Deerfield Academy, St. Mark's School, and Fairhaven High School. (Dominic Sessa, starring in his first film role as Angus, had actually attended Deerfield in the class of 2022.)This is an impressive debut for Sessa reminiscent of Lucas Hedges in the 2016Manchester by the Sea. The architecture around these old New England towns is beautiful. The school buildings go back to the late eighteenth century (there are older schools in New York and Pennsylvania), and could house a small liberal arts college. These handsome settings are part of the beautiful visuals that grace The Holdovers, and take on a festive glow. It starts with nostalgia and then makes something beautiful and evocative out of it.

    Whoever are the winners, the people we watch are not them. Mr. Hunham's bad attitude includes a tendency to flunk his most privileged students, the kind who aim to get into Harvard or Yale, and whose fathers might donate a swimming pool or a new roof for the gym of the school. He has just caused one such student not to get into the college of his choice. He teaches Ancient Civilizations, and favors Cicero and the Peloponnesian War. He has taught here for many years, and has long thought he was maintaining traditional moral and intellectual values. Lately he has come to think everything has gone to hell.

    Most of the boys, five or six of them, rather improbably, are rescued at the last minute from this exile when the father of one sends a helicopter to collect them all and take them skiing. Only one tall boy, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who's been expelled from three previous schools and may not be long for this one, is forced to stay because he can't get parental permission to go. He was all packed for a vacation at Saint Kit's but his mother is off with his new stepfather on a "honeymoon," and now they can't be reached by phone. Cell phones and email are a long time away.

    The holdovers wind down to Mr. Hunham, Angus, and Mary Lamb, the cook (DaVine Joy Randolf), a very ample black woman. She's the chief cook and stays to fix their meals. But she is there for her own reasons, to remember and grieve. Her son was a scholarship student, but recently died in Vietnam. There is a big portrait of him up in the chapel. Barton boys don't fight and die in Vietnam. But this one did, because he was black.

    Entertainment is drinking whiskey for Hunham and Mary (for him a lot - he's tippling all day; she often has a cigarette in her hand). But boarding school on winter holiday is not a place of luxury. The big Christmas tree is removed to resell. Much of the heat is shut off so they must sleep in the infirmary. No fresh food is coming in till after New Year's. There will be a further escape - to Boston - and more will be revealed there.

    We have to focus on those three; there's also Danny, a janitor (Naheem Garcia), but he has little to do but discover vomit on the gym floor. Many characters come and go. Payne, one thinks, wastes lots of energy finding the other boys to play the students, only to have them depart on the helicopter. What is important is to learn more about the three principals. Angus and Humham have important secrets to reveal, or discover for us

    Is this the way you want to spend your Christmas vacation? On the face of it, no. But the film is an intriguing process of discovery, of circumstance and social status. How well off we are, or aren't. How perilous is life at a boarding school, for some. Thinking of Eastern schools and the winter holidays, I can't help remembering a masterpiece of that genre, Whit Stallman's 1990 Metropolitan. - though its students are in college. They call themselves "the Sally Fowler Rat Pack." They're a little circle of Upper East Side socialites who spend this cold, but festive time, in Manhattan, meeting up for debutante balls and after parties. They don't get as raw and exposed as Payne's characters in The Holdovers, but they are wonderfully entertaining and speak in droll sentences that form into droll paragraphs.

    Naturally the attention of this new movie goes to Paul Giamatti, for it was with Alexander Payne nineteen years ago that he became famous for playing Miles Raymond, the depressed teacher and unsuccessful writer in Sideways. He is on familiar ground here, and doing much the same kind of thing he did to get his Oscar nomination for Miles. Time will tell whether the excellence of the writing and acting will outweigh this film's familiar material of schoolboys and sad holidays. Giamatti seems as good here as he did in Sideways, and this is one of his best roles, even if this film may not feel as distinctive and original as Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, or The Descendants. 'Brother Bro' on The Oscar Expert has predicted Oscar noms for Picture, Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actress.

    The Holdovers, 133 mins., debuted at Telluride, playing also at Toronto, London, and a dozen other American and international festivals. US theatrical debut Nov. 10, 2023. Screened for this review at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood theater, Berkeley, CA. Metacritic rating; 81%.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-25-2023 at 11:03 PM.


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