Directed by Alexander Payne | Written by David Hemingson | 133 min | ▲▲▲▲▲ | in Cinemas
Alexander Payne is the director of wry, gentle, and humanist American features like Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska, and Downsizing. His new film, The Holdovers, might be the best one yet. He and his collaborators have made a film that’s not only set in the early 1970s but evokes some of the excellence of that decade’s cinema.
Payne’s Sideways star Paul Giamatti is Paul Hunham. We’ve all had a teacher like him — a guy who doesn’t have much of a life outside his work and whose commitment to his professional ethics makes him a pain in the ass and an object of ridicule by students and colleagues. That he has a lazy eye and a body odour health issue doesn’t much help his case.
As the Christmas holidays roll around every year a teacher is chosen to stay on campus of the fusty private boys school where he works. It wasn’t supposed to be him, but then it is. He joins Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a cafeteria manager whose son died earlier in the year serving in Vietnam, and a small group of kids who can’t go home for one reason or another — most prominently class weirdo Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa).
At first, Mr Hunam and Mr Tully are very much at odds, but in time they recognize something essential and familiar in one another. That time and painful understanding serves as the meat of the movie, the two-week wintry break — including exercise in the snow, a series of meals in the cafeteria, a party at another teacher’s home, and even a brief road trip to Boston.
The balance of humour and heartbreak is what makes this so special. We get plenty of laughs, to be sure, but each of these characters is fundamentally broken in ways that can’t be simply fixed. The picture also regularly reminds how easy it is to ignore one’s privilege, recognizing the societal inequity of class, of race, or the face of an unjust war.
The film channels pictures like Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail and Harold And Maude in its uncomplicated grit and authentic sense of time and place, and even has an undeniable nod to one of the greatest comedies, Withnail and I, in a line of dialogue.
Yes, there is an iMac sitting in the window of a store the characters walk past in Boston, but that goof isn’t anywhere near enough to sour me on this terrific movie. I’ll chuckle at that mistake the next time I watch it, just as I did the last, along with all the ways The Holdovers is just right.