It’s 1970 and at a Barton Academy, a New England prep school, the staff and students are about to break for Christmas. History teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is asked to look after the small number of students who have to stay at the school over the break. The reasons vary, but it boils down to parents not having, and possibly not wanting, their children back home for Christmas. Remaining at the school is seen as a kind of punishment for staff and students alike.
Hunham had wanted to spend his time student-free, reading books. Head Cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) has also chosen to stay at Barton because her son has recently died fighting the war in Vietnam. She is grieving and doesn’t want to stay with her sister’s family. Eventually the number of holdover students is whittled down to just Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). He is an intelligent boy that is constantly at odds with his classmates. His mother wants to spend time with her new husband and breaks her promise to have the boy back home.
Hunham, Mary and Angus are the only people at the school other than the maintenance man Danny (Naheem Garcia). For them, this Christmas season doesn’t feel joyous. They are preoccupied by personal troubles and are not the best company for each other.
Movies love a mismatched group and THE HOLDOVERS takes full advantage of this idea. Hunham is an authoritarian stickler of a teacher, who genuinely loves history, but manages to alienate all of his students and most of his fellow staff members with his attitudes and lecturing manner. He thinks Tully is wasting his intelligence by not studying harder. Tully seems directionless and angry. Although he doesn’t know what he wants to do, he fears he will be sent to military academy. Mary is great at her job, but during the break she has no focus and can’t stop thinking about the loss of her son. The days pass slowly for this group, because they have no strong hopes for the future.
The circumstances force them together and their struggles with each other reveals what is going on more deeply with these people. This slow “onion-skin” unwrapping of these characters is the strength of David Hemingson’s script. In incident after incident, their histories and true natures are revealed and although the problems are serious, Hemingson’s writing and Alexander Payne’s direction bring out the humour. There is comedy and drama aplenty here and all at a small and nuanced scale because most of the scenes are between the three main characters. They are purposely small figures in a frozen New England landscape; they’re caught in a metaphorical snowglobe.
The season and the year are addressed regularly through the excellent locations, props and wardrobe. Hair obsessives might argue the styles aren’t all correct for the era, but for the most part you don’t think too much about it not being 1970, which is usually a sign that the time-period is being well represented. Throughout the story, Christmas is referenced frequently as a time of family and happiness, although these things seem to be complicated in this privileged boarding school environment.
At the recent Golden Globes, Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph both received an award for their work on the film. Giamatti creates a character of many small pieces but also a man who has few achievements and he clings to his job with determination. Randolph plays Mary as a woman who has lost her very centre with the death of her son and doesn’t know how she is going to continue. Dominic Sessa convincingly portrays a boy who wants to explore the world, but first has to deal with the deep disappointment of his family. Payne’s direction of all of his actors is first class and this film is very sure about where it is heading. We see the pain in this frozen, empty Yuletide world, but we’re also given many laughs as Hunham and Tully, in particular, crash into to each other emotionally and constantly have insightful insults to throw at each other.
Alexander Payne is often said to have a kind of detachment and coolness about the characters in his films. This is decidedly not the case in THE HOLDOVERS. This film loves its central trio and pays tribute to their journey. This is a thoughtful film that undercuts sappiness with some spot-on laughs all through its 2 hour and 13 minute run-time.