Friday, February 2, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Holdovers (2023)

Time for another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Another of the current Best Pic nominees, this one comes from the director/star team that brought you the classic buddy/road/wine comedy Sideways, Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti.  Reunited after two decades, the pair are back with The Holdovers, a comedy-drama about a cantankerous teacher and his disobedient student, shut in together at their Massachusetts boarding school over the 1970 winter break.  Professor Paul Hunham gets stuck with this two-week assignment as punishment for failing a legacy student, while junior Agnus Tully is stranded at school after his mother cancels their planned family trip so she and her new husband can get away alone.  Both student and teacher profoundly resent each other but slowly begin to find common ground, thanks largely to a neutral third-party, the school's head cook Mary Lamb, whose son was recently killed in Vietnam.
The film is understatedly funny and often touching like most of Payne's work, and despite covering some pretty well-trodden narrative ground, manages to find new and unexpected ways to play out the story.  The three lead performances are all first-rate.  Newcomer Dominic Sessa imbues his sarcastic, self-protective character with loads of pathos so we really feel for him and understand why he's so guarded.  Da'Vine Joy Randolph provides the film's sympathetic center as the lonely cafeteria manager who lost her husband just before her son was born and has now lost the son as well.  Projecting a cynical detachment so as to shield herself from continued mourning, Mary lends the feuding teacher and student some much-needed perspective.  And then there's of course the inimitable Paul Giamatti as the literal-minded, irascible professor, who laments that schools like Barton Academy seem to care less these days about teaching their students to become responsible, conscientious young men and more about doing favors for wealthy donors and notable alumni.  But Mr. Hunham masks his own pain and shame as well, and the film doles out information about the characters in disciplined fashion to keep us engaged.

Side note: as a Massachusetts native it was a lot of fun seeing some of Boston's landmarks and familiar streets featured so prominently in the later scenes; one important moment takes place outside the Orpheum Theater, on a side street I've passed hundreds of times.

Stuffy prep schools are often a ripe setting for dramatic films; such locales inherently come with a degree of emotional repression and student rebelliousness.  The Holdovers contains some familiar elements from movies like Dead Poets Society, but without the hamfisted manipulation of which that film was so guilty.  Payne and his screenwriter David Hemingson wisely let the audience decide which characters to identify with, rather than telling us.  The result is a very poignant, human, and subtly amusing film.

I give The Holdovers ***1/2 out of ****.

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