Despite attempts within Hollywood to stifle the mid-budget adult film in favor of franchises and IP, the genre has remained defiantly resilient. Perhaps it’s because there’s something innately human about them – not many individuals will have to fight off an alien invasion, but we can all relate to feelings of isolation and a desire to connect.
It’s why works of art can withstand centuries – at our core, all humans are in need of love, support, and connection, whether we care to admit it or not. And it is for that reason that Alexander Payne’s newest film, The Holdovers, is such a triumph: it is a simple, unassuming film that utilizes a stellar script and cast to tell its acerbic, heartwarming story in a simple, yet utterly profound, way.
In 1971, the students of Barton Academy all prepare for the prosperous colleges and futures the private school can provide. That is, of course, if they can survive the Classical History class of Professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), whose eloquent, no-nonsense approach to teaching and innate pleasure in failing his students makes him the most hated teacher at the school. As punishment for failing the son of a wealthy U.S. Senator, Paul is forced to oversee the holdover students – the students who, for one reason or another, are unable to go home for Christmas break.
Eventually, Paul finds himself alone in the school’s massive halls. His only companions include Angus (Dominic Sessa), a bright, angry boy dealing with his mother’s recent marriage to a cold stepfather, and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. Over the following few weeks, the group begins to learn more about each other, and perhaps find themselves changed for the better.
What Alexander Payne does so well as a director – whether working from his script or not – is finding that essential humanity within his flawed, pained characters. This is a film about three people from very different walks of life, all feeling alone and isolated by their respective fates, all trying to to cut themselves off from the world yet inevitably drawn together. It’s easy to dismiss them based on how we meet them early on: Paul is a curmudgeonly alcoholic whose defining characteristic is hatred for the world he inhabits, while Angus is a directionless teen trying to balance his deep pain with his own narcissism and privilege.
Yet the beauty of David Hemingson’s screenplay and Payne’s direction is the way it fleshes out the characters and their struggles. Underneath the angst-ridden misanthropy is a deep, relatable pain that is slowly revealed as layers get peeled away. Paul is first seen as a soulless curmudgeon, yet we learn how the world has beaten him down and he’s reached this unloveable, unfeeling state. We meet Angus as an angsty, selfish teen, yet – not unlike Paul – we learn just how unloved he feels, and how dark the secrets he carries truly are. And while Mary is quiet and stoic, and viewed by the students as mostly the afterthought who cooks their meals, we learn about the pain and loss she’s felt in life, and how she perseveres despite the system’s futile, unfair, and deadly disregard for her family.
All of this unfolds with an impossible breeziness, from the top down. Most of the acclaim belongs to Hemingson’s screenplay, so full of life and wit and insight. Every detail is right where it should be – every expert quip, emotional reveal, and well-constructed conversation. Take, for instance, the way the script carefully whittles down the cast. What starts as a school full of students is cut down to the two adults and five students, and ultimately to the core three. It allows us to slowly get to know how these characters interact with most of society before seeing how the isolation fundamentally changes them.
The film lives and dies on Hemingson’s script, yet he is evenly matched by Payne’s direction. His filmmaking is classical in nature, allowing for solid, yet subtle shot composition, structure, and editing. It keeps the story moving without ever overshadowing the script or acting. His light touch keeps things funny and moving, never overplaying his hand. In one of his best touches, he scores the holiday-themed first half of the film with different Christmas songs, which both sets a tone of quiet forgiveness while ironically juxtaposing the pure contempt within the characters. Payne is a master of little details like this, and it showcases what his quiet, honest filmmaking can accomplish.
The Holdovers is technically a three-actor showcase, but in a much more honest sense, this film is wholly and completely Giamatti’s. It’s a bold statement for someone with a resume as acclaimed and beloved as his, but this might be the character actor’s finest role to date. It is tailor made for him, prickly and smug and loquacious with just enough humanity under the surface to offer salvation. Giamatti lets phrases roll off his tongue with grandiose verbosity while he hides beneath the surface a deep pain – a division between a love for his school and the realization it is holding him back from greater things. This is his film through and through, and it stands tall as one of the year’s best performances.
Of course, Giamatti’s job is made easier by breakout star Dominic Sessa. Sessa is solid as the angsty Angus. He holds so much behind his eyes without ever giving away his character’s harder truths. Yet despite his character’s secret pain, he allows for so much emotion – joy, humor, anger, acceptance, and beyond – through his incredibly reflective, expressive face. He can make the viewer laugh just as easily as he can make them cry.
And then there’s Randolph. A rising star thanks to her work in Dolemite Is My Name and Only Murders In The Building, Randolph dazzles as a mother without a son, more well-adjusted than her compatriots, yet no less in pain. She is a conscience to both men, a symbol of everything simultaneously great and terrible with the school, yet entirely her own character with her own journey. It is some of the best work of the year, and every bit as equal as her counterparts.
The Holdovers is a masterful example of natural, simple, human storytelling. It speaks to the heart of each and every viewer, be they a teenager yearning to connect in an increasingly cold world or an aging adult struggling with their place in a world they no longer recognize. It is excellent from the top down – entertaining, insightful, and emotional. It is expertly directed, precisely written, and perfectly acted. Films like The Holdovers reflect the beauty of the human experience, and rare gems like this cannot be missed.
The Holdovers will release wide in theaters on November 10th