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The Holdovers

Director – Alexander Payne – 2023 – US – Cert. 15 – 133m


A teenage pupil must remain at school in the care of his strict and widely despised Ancient History teacher over the 1970 Christmas holidays – out in UK cinemas on Friday, January 19th

A school movie with a difference: this takes place not in term time, but in the holidays. Specifically, a New England boys’ boarding school in the 1970 Christmas holidays, when, for various reasons, five pupils – three teenage, two younger – are unable to go home for the seasonal break, so must instead be looked after by a member of staff at the school. That task falls to ancient history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who is filling in for the member of staff who made up a story about a difficult family health situation to get out of being lumbered with the task. Paul is put upon for jobs like this because he’s the guy who can’t say no; he’s also a stickler for hard work and discipline who is disliked by fellow teaching staff and pupils alike.

Once the other staff and students have left, one other person remains on the premises: the head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who has a connection to the institution beyond her employment. Her late son, who enlisted in the armed forces and was killed in combat, was a pupil – but unlike most of the boys, whose parents are reasonably well off and who are destined for university or college, her son had no option but to join up. Her feelings in relation to the place are all mixed up with her ongoing maternal bereavement process.

One of the boys’ parents unexpectedly arrives in a helicopter, collecting not just his own son, but also another three of the boys. That just leaves teenager Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), an intelligent boy with a history of confronting the ancient history teacher over his methods. He is probably the last boy Paul would wish to be looking after. And yet, their unexpected proximity over this short period of time will force each to get to know and understand the other better. As it turns out, Angus’ own family history is somewhat troubled.

This could so easily have tipped over into cloying sentimentality, but to the credit of all concerned both in front of and behind the camera, it never does. Instead, what slowly emerges, at a wonderfully unforced pace, is a study of three damaged individuals. The teacher has never managed to form a relationship or get a family together. The cook, through unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances, has lost not only her son but, more recently, her fiancé. And Angus, it turns out, is desperate to visit his father who is incarcerated in a Boston mental home.

To achieve this end, without explaining what he’s up to, the boy persuades the teacher to take him on a Christmas / New Year trip to that city, which the teacher does under the moniker of a ‘field trip’ since school funds are available for that purpose. The cook tags along for the ride, since her pregnant sister lives in Boston, so it’s a chance for her to visit for a few days.

Payne usually writes his own screenplays, but on this occasion, he entrusted his idea to David Hemingson who had sent him a spec script about a boys’ prep school circa 1980. Movies are a collaborative medium, and it’s clear watching this one that the writer, while contributing a large part of himself, is completely in sync with what the director is after.

In this critic’s view, 80 percent of getting a movie right lies in getting the script right, and a large part of the remaining 20 per cent is down to the casting. Hemingson’s script is flawless. Giamatti is just right as the curmudgeonly teacher, Randolph exudes believable twin elements of groundedness and sadness as the bereaved cook, while Sessa – a real life prep school student who’d never acted in font of a camera before – completely convinces as the troubled youth.

As if this wasn’t enough, the film is littered with numerous bit parts that, in their much smaller way, are just as impressive as the leads. The other four boys who vanish after the first reel comprise a rich kid (Michael Provost), a bully (Brady Hefner), a Korean-American (Jim Kaplan) whose parents are back in Korea and the son of Mormon missionaries (Ian Dolley). , Among other members of the school’s teaching and domestic staff are the unsympathetic headmaster (Andrew Garman) who can’t wait to find a way to get shot of Paul, the tireless janitor Danny (Naheem Garcia) who clearly has a soft spot for the cook.

There’s a lightness of touch to this character-driven drama that in the end renders it all the more impressive. Director Payne possesses a remarkable grasp of what makes people tick and is equally blessed with abilities in casting not only his actors but, in this case, his screenwriter. People don’t usually talk in those terms with regard to screenwriters, but I think it’s accurate here. Equally impressive, and just as unforced, is the attention to detail in which a whole raft of elements – among them recent events such as the moon landing and the Vietnam War – seamlessly lock the narrative into Christmas 1970.

In short, a remarkable, well written and acted, character-driven drama that will have you hooked. It’s two and a quarter hours long, but never feels like it. Don’t miss.

The Holdoversis out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 19th.


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