The Holdovers

“The Holdovers” is one of the year’s best films and a surefire contender for Best Picture and many other Oscars. This is a comedy-drama that’s at once blisteringly funny, painfully insightful, and authentically poignant from start to finish.

It succeeds largely due to the performances of Paul Giamatti and its stellar supporting cast as well as the sharp, wonderful direction of Alexander Payne and expertly written screenplay by David Hemingson. It’s almost too much of a good thing to see this in one movie.

Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham, a teacher at a boys’ boarding school in New England in 1970. He’s a curmudgeon who is looked down on by everyone there for his no-nonsense philosophy. He even calls students troglodytes. He’s been assigned to take care of five boys who are left behind for Christmas.

One of the kids is named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who has a chip on his shoulder. The other four kids are offered a chance to spend Christmas on a ski trip, leaving Hunham and Angus. Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays a school cook mourning the loss of her young son after he died in Vietnam. She does her job dutifully, but she hates the conditions as much as the guys.

At first, the two are constantly butting heads, but through a moment where Angus dislocates his shoulder, Hunham is given an opportunity to know young Angus, and the two slowly but gradually start to bond. This leads to a series of scenes, including attending a Christmas party and even a trip to Boston. It’s these scenes that make the movie consistently shine.

As I said, the performances are the selling point, but Payne’s direction shouldn’t be left out either. He wonderfully recreates the early ’70s not only in the film but how it’s designed right from the credits. This movie is positively a part of its time and timeless simultaneously. Hemingson’s script features snappy dialogue for its funny moments and well-articulated, affecting, and profound moments as well.

There are elements of “The Breakfast Club” and “Dead Poets Society,” but The Holdovers succeeds on its own terms. Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph are a trio of dynamic camaraderie who are able to portray human beings that are fatally flawed but have such good souls and help bring about change in each other.

The Holdovers proves that sometimes wonderful dialogue and outstanding performances can carry a movie farther than any special effects extravaganza could ever reach for. There’s something to it.

Grade: A

(Rated R for language, some drug use and brief sexual material.)

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