Alexander Payne returns to form with a film that is funny, affecting and just plain human. It is a film that earns every emotional payoff over a steady, even lugubriously paced two hour plus running time. By the end of it, one feels that one has come to know and care for these characters. I wasn’t ready to leave them.
The story takes place in an elite boarding school in 1970. It is an environment of extreme privilege, rubbing up against a world of extreme social inequality. We are painfully aware that the rich kids go to College where the poor kids get drafted and die in Vietnam. The centre of the story is Paul Giamatti’s disliked, strict, but scabrously funny Ancient Civilisations teacher Mr Hunham. Having failed a rich kid, Mr Hunham is punished by his headmaster by being left to steward the kids who can’t go home for Christmas. Events, dear boy, events, soon shrink the “holdovers” down to three people: Mr Hunham; the school cook Mary (Da’vine Joy Randolph); and troubled but smart student Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa). As the film unfolds, we realise that these three unlikely bedfellows have more in common that might first appear to be the case. But this isn’t a forced revelation. Each is grieving or thwarted by the vicissitudes of life. We learn that no-one is a bad as we might think, nor as straightforward.
There is so much to love about this film - the way the 1970s style is recreated in its opening credits, the costumes and production design - the lightness of touch with which profound material is written and directed - and the uniformly superb performances. It would be justice for Paul Giamatti to be nominated for an Oscar, but my word, do not overlook stunning supporting performances from Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa. I am sure I am not the only person excited to see what he does next. It’s crazy to think that this is his first film - or indeed that this is the first feature script written by David Hemingson. Which just goes to show the consistent genius of Alexander Payne in talent spotting such a beautiful script and casting it so well. Kudos to all involved.
THE HOLDOVERS played Toronto and London 2023 and goes on release in the USA on November 3rd and in the UK on January 19th 2024.