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Toronto International Film Festival Review: Paul Giamatti Triumphs in Alexander Payne’s Striking “The Holdovers”

Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Teachers from high school do leave their mark. Apparently a strong one on filmmaker Alexander Payne. Back in 1999, in his witty satire “Election”, he explored teacher-student relations letting Matthew Broderick’s good-natured teacher confronts Reese Witherspoon’s obnoxious and perky student. In his new film, “The Holdovers”, Payne once again enters this charged universe but in a very different time and tone, with a jaded teacher everybody hates.

In his best film since “Sideways” (2004), Payne reunites with Paul Giamatti who makes a comic triumph as Paul Hunham, the principled and prickly professor of ancient civilizations at Barton Academy, a posh boarding school in New England. The year is 1970 which is hip with Cat Stevens, purple polo shirts, sideburns, and grass green leather sofas. Giamatti’s professor, with a lazy eye and a condition that makes him smell like fish, is knowledgeable and makes references to the Romans in some most peculiar moments. He is also unbearable, insulting his students for every little slip and giving them hard times as soon as he gets the chance.

The film starts with a “Dead Poets Society”-vibe, but of the 70’s. Long-haired, well-off students in dorms making their way. But Giamatti’s teacher, in a bushy mustache and ugly bow ties, is not in a “seize the day” mood. He seems to despise his students and flunks almost everyone. He’s got a strict moral compass and just wants to be alone over the Christmas break with pulpy mystery books. It’s not just the students who loathe him, so does his superiors whom he clashes with. After one of those clashes, he is punished to stay at the school and supervise the students who are unable to go home over the break. It’s holdover duty and he’s not happy about it.

Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Paul is stuck with a handful of troublemakers as the holidays begin, but is soon left with only one, the rebellious Angus Tully, incredibly well played by newcomer Dominic Sessa whom Payne found in Deerfield Academy in Western Massachusetts, one of the schools they were shooting at. Sessa was chosen for the role after Payne had auditioned over 800 teenagers. Angus is a bright 15-year-old student whose parents neglected him and is one misfortune away from being expelled and likely sent to Vietnam.

The two find themselves alone with Mary Lamb, the grieving school head chef whose son has recently died in that war and is the only person Paul is kind to. She is played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph – a gentle sensation. The trio of outcasts seems to have more in common than first appears. Throughout the film, especially from this point on, there are moments of sadness interwoven when Paul and Angus reveal past traumas, and Mary gets tipsy and blue.

And throughout the film there are hilarious, perfectly delivered, one-liners coming out of Giamatti’s mouth, written by television veteran David Hemingson. Payne gave him the premise of the film after had thought about the idea for over ten years. He also came in later to bevel the edges and put his personal touches in. It’s the second time Payne didn’t pen the whole story (“Nebraska” from 2013 being the other one). He has won twice an Oscar for adapted screenplay, one for “Sideways” and one for “The Descendants” (2011), although he says writing is the most hideous part of filmmaking.

Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao – © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

After the misfire sci-fi satire “Downsizing” (2017) six years ago, Payne has returned to form, and has taken it a step further. The look of it reminds you of the great films of the 1970’s. “The Holdovers” isn’t just set in 1970, it matches the spirit of the decade of New Hollywood. A period in which cinema restoration enthusiast Payne grew up. He was trying to replicate the experience of the movies he loved as much as possible and shot the film with equipment and camera lenses from that period. He succeeds beautifully. The film finds the warmth of nostalgia – Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s (“In Bruges”, 2008) uses vintage visuals with grainy texture to warm us in the snowy winter.

The Holdovers” vibrates with life as it explores the absence of blood family with sensibility, delicacy, and simplicity, and doesn’t try to create new family constellation – it’s unlikely the three would ever hang out again. There’s plenty of humor from the witty dialogue and Giamatti’s body language. And between the many laughs, a certain melancholy rolls in. Just like Christmas time feels for many people. “The Holdovers” holds your hand firmly up until the very last frame.

Grade: A-

Check out more of Niclas’ articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Niclas Goldberg
Niclas Goldberg
Niclas Goldberg was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. After graduating from film studies at the University of Stockholm he has been working in New York as a programmer for Göteborg Film Festival and as a film journalist interviewing various directors and actors for newspapers and film magazines, such as Dagens Nyheter and Filmrutan. In addition, he has written film reviews, poetry books and directed short films.


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