Principal Cast : Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Andrew Garman, Naheem Garcia, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Darby Lily Lee-Stack.
Synopsis: A cranky history teacher at a remote prep school is forced to remain on campus over the holidays with a troubled student who has no place to go and a grieving cook.


Imagine if the worst person you knew was a part of the Breakfast Club. That’s the premise of The Holdovers, a terrific character piece led by Paul Giamatti in which a pompous, curmudgeonly old school teacher is stuck on-campus over a snowbound Christmas break with a bunch of unruly students who don’t get to go home, and a grief-stricken school cook mourning the recent passing of her son in Vietnam. Alexander Payne, whose films are almost entirely arthouse in tone, if not execution, re-teams with Giamatti for the first time since Sideways, and together with Dominic Sesse (in his screen debut, if you can believe it) and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, creates a moving and wryly comedic drama that seems to be about judging a book by its cover, and allows some remarkable performances to spring from it.

Written by David Hemmingson (another feature film debutant here), The Holdovers sees Giamatti play classics professor Paul Hunham, an overly-strict member of the faulty of the prestigious Barton School, where he once attended as a student. Derided by his staff colleagues and detested by those he now teaches, Hunham is given the odious task of babysitting several students unable to return to their homes over the Christmas holiday break. Snowbound and lacking heating, the students all find the two week break torturous, until all but one are removed from the school by fortuitous circumstance. The remaining student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sesse) resents being anywhere near Hunham but as the days progress they form an unlikely bond through difficulty. They are not alone, however, with school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) also remaining on campus following the death of her son in war, while janitor Danny (Naheem Garcia), who himself harbours feelings for Ms Lamb, also circles the property until the break is over.

The “stuck at school for a prolonged period” motif isn’t new to cinema, and Breakfast Club allusions aside The Holdovers manages well – nay, exceeds – its brief in terms of building characters and developing an attachment to them. Foremost this is an actor’s film, in that the performances are the driving force, and Paul Giamatti once again showcases a superb ability to really inhabit a role that suits him to a tee. The character of Paul Hunham even has a lazy eye, something I thought was a trait Giamatti had had all this time until I googled it and learned that he actually didn’t have one – it’s an effect and a superb one included in the film, and one that informs on both the character of Hunham and the film overall. I liken Giamatti’s ability similar to that of Tom Hanks, in that for all but a few moments in the film you forget that this is an actor playing a role, such is the care and love the actor gives to the part. The Holdovers is arguably Giamatti’s best turn in a film that I’ve seen and his Oscar nomination is well deserved.

He’s not alone, however, for Dominic Sessa’s work as Angus Tully is also comparably good. I found the character to be difficult to empathise with at the start, and you never quite know if Tully is a douche or a decent bloke, but Sessa turns the character into somebody who’s more than just “sullen student miserable with life”. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s turn as Mary Lamb is from the top shelf as well, the actress delivering a memorable performance of grief and loss mixed with sass, and I was there for it. Easily deserving of her Oscar nomination, Randolph takes what might be a traditionally uninteresting supporting role and turns it into a powerhouse moment in the film.

This is a film filled with secrets and lies – several narrative twists that arrive are legitimately heartbreaking – and wonderful performances of characters that are all uniquely flawed and moving in their own ways. I loved this film, and I adored Giamatti’s work here as the irascible, utterly ulovable Hunham, because we’ve all had or known of teachers just like him. Turning an asshole into somebody you love to watch, despite all their flaws, is an art, and Payne, Hemmingson and Giamatti should be applauded to the heavens for what they achieve with this film. The Holdovers is heartily recommended and thoroughly deserving of its place in this year’s Oscar nominations.

Who wrote this?