This holiday movie is one of the best yet! It reunites director Alexander Payne (Election, Nebraska) with Paul Giamatti (Love & Mercy, 12 Years a Slave) an actor who gave a truly memorable performance in  Payne’s earlier Oscar nominated film Sideways.  Here Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a bitter, curmudgeonly history teacher in a boys prep school in Massachusetts. It’s 1970 and the Christmas holiday is coming, and he gets roped into being the one who supervises all the boys who are not going home for the holidays. No one is happy about it. And he’s not about to make it a warm and fuzzy Christmas for them.

Fortunately one boy’s parents invite all the others to go on a ski trip. But there is one boy whose parents cannot be reached and he has to stay behind with Paul. Dominic Sessa delivers a poignant debut as Angus. He and Paul have butted heads from the very first moment we see them together in class. Angus is already going through a hard time, and his mother not returning the call– forcing him to stay with Paul– just make his teenage angst worse. So he and Paul enter into a battle of the wills. 

The only other person left behind is Mary (Da’vine Joy Randolph, The Lost City, Rustin) the school cook whose son has recently been killed in Viet Nam and she is grieving, though mostly holding it together. She’s also the one person Paul is kind to from the very beginning. The three of them slowly through the film become a warm and trusting trio of lost souls.

The Holdovers works on so many levels. Great character-driven script. A-level acting. Hilariously funny at times and heartbreaking others. I’m sure it will get some awards season love. Giamatti is perfect. So are Randolph and newcomer Sessa. Some of the lines that come out of Giamatti’s mouth had me laugh out loud. You know from the set up where it is going, but it is a wonderful ride. I highly recommend it for family viewing (not the little ones, but teenage and up.)

[Mainstream Chick’s take: I also enjoyed The Holdovers. Not quite as much as Arty Chick (who failed to note my favorite Alexander Payne film, The Descendants), but enough to recommend it for holiday season viewing and a bit of awards-season love. From the opening scenes, this film conjured up memories of Dead Poets Society (also set in a New England boarding school) and The Breakfast Club. Then it settled into a slightly different rhythm as an unconventional ‘family’ Christmas movie with an authentic 1970s aesthetic. Paul Giamatti is in his element, delivering his classic mix of understated drama and dry wit. Newcomer Dominic Sessa holds his own as a seemingly entitled and arrogant teen who likes to push people’s buttons. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Da’vine Joy Randolph get a best supporting actress nod– and maybe even a win– for her moving performance as a grieving mom trying to get through her first Christmas without her son.  By the end, you can’t help but feel for– and root for– Paul, Angus, and Mary. -hb]


In theaters now. 

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