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The Holdovers

The Holdovers is a marvel

★★★★★ - STUFF

- Alexander Payne's latest film is a vintage gem -

The Holdovers opens with a simple flourish. The movie screen crackles into life and a logo from Paramount Pictures appears. But it is not the branding from 2023. This is a Paramount logo from the 1970s.

For a moment, the audience flirts with the conceit that we have been transported back to when projectionists loaded reels of film onto machines and human dramas, made without special effects or shock-value, played to packed houses and even took home awards.

For the next two hours, The Holdovers is happy to maintain that illusion. You might even walk out of the cinema wondering if a beautifully written script about credible and complicated people, brought to life by a handful of good actors, could maybe still be enough to make a film a hit.

The Holdovers takes place as December of 1970 rolls into the first days on 1971. At an exclusive red-brick prep school in snow-bound New England, history teacher Paul Hunham has landed the job of staying over the Christmas break. Every year a handful of boarders cannot travel home for some reason, so a teacher is assigned to baby-sit those students for two weeks.

This year the roster includes rebellious misfit Angus Tully, who is one school-suspension away from being sent to a military academy by his unwanted new stepfather. Joining the students will be the school cook, whose son has been killed in Vietnam.

Hunham is mocked and reviled by the students and his fellow staff. The students hate Hunham because he is a pompous oaf who treats them with complete disdain. And the school principal and board loathe him because he refused to give a pass mark - "even a lousy C minus" - to a boy whose wealthy father has paid for a whole new goddamned library.

"That idiot was too dumb to pour piss out of a boot" explains Hunham. And, perhaps we warm to him, just a little.

After a few days, only Hunham, Angus and Mary the cook are left at the school. The rest have been whisked away on a ski trip. The trio decamp and head off on a series of small adventures. There will be trips to a museum, encounters with old colleagues, a Christmas Eve party and a detour to Boston, perhaps to visit Angus's father's graveside.

And through it all these unlikely companions will break every self-imposed rule they live by, and maybe even find a bit of joy and reconciliation in their exile.

Payne's best films - Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, Nebraska - have always featured the implosion and partial redemption of insufferable men, and he is on familiar ground here. Hunham is played by Paul Giamatti as a man hiding behind his rebarbative put-downs and nightly half-bottle of bourbon, barely able to function for the weight of the chip on his shoulder.

Next to Giamatti, who is reliably, caustically and hilariously superb, new-comer Dominic Sessa - as Angus - was discovered during a casting-call at the school The Holdovers was being shot at. Sessa rewards Payne with a performance that swings from spiky to soulful, as the script walks him through the plains and pit-falls of a coming-of-age yarn, sketched out on the tiniest of canvases.

Sessa is a natural. If he's not an established actor in another few years, I'll be surprised and disappointed.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph (The United States vs Billie Holiday) takes on the role of chef and confidant Mary, and burns the screen down in a couple of key scenes.

The Holdovers is a marvel. It reminded me of Sideways a little, and also Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. It shares that film's perfect evocation of a time and place, and also its delight in just how mesmerising a decent conversation can be.

Ultimately, The Holdovers is about the everyday heroism of just learning to like other people, and what a mountain that can be to climb.

The year 1971 was a good one for American film. Harold and Maude, Klute and The French Connection were all released. I reckon The Holdovers could have held its head up in that company, no worries at all.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

The Holdovers is now playing at Light House Cinema! 

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