Misfits bond and grow in Alexander Payne’s comeback

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Holdovers
Friday 10
3.5 out of 5

Remember when movies were linear? When they didn’t start in the middle, were recapped by an unreliable narrator, or took place in a multiverse? Alexander Payne does. The filmmaker behind Election, About Schmidt, and Nebraska keeps his storytelling short and (deceptively) simple.

His goal: to mine nuggets of humanity from pettiness, spite and questionable behaviour.

The one time Payne strayed from his approach ­— the $70 million dystopic comedy Downsizing — became his biggest disappointment. It took him six years to smarten up from that box office flop and he’s doing it with the movie equivalent of a Greatest Hits album: The Holdovers.

The Holdovers is a coming-of-age dramedy that unfolds over Christmas break in the ’70s.  It goes out of its way to be old-fashioned, right down to using a “movie voice” for the trailer.

Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) is a disaffected senior at a boarding school who’s stuck on campus over the holidays thanks to family turmoil. His exile places him under the care of Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti, Payne’s Sideways), the prep school’s prickly history teacher. Hunham is loathed by the students at Barton Academy and most of the faculty. He doesn’t think much of the spoiled, rich brats either. Hunham’s rigidity comes from a place of integrity, but nobody notices.

Angus is smart enough to survive the class but isn’t his teacher’s fan.

Joining these lonely misfits is Mary (an excellent Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s cook. Her only son attended Barton on a scholarship, but top-notch education couldn’t save him from being shipped to Vietnam and killed in action. The unlikely trio bonds over their isolation and the secret riches that come with being overlooked. It turns out none of them are as inflexible as they first appear.

It’s a delightful experience overall (sharp dialogue, beautiful performances), even if there isn’t anything in The Holdovers we haven’t seen in previous Alexander Payne movies. Unappealing, irritable scholar who happens to feel too deeply? Check. Precocious teen with anger issues? Check. America’s sins from the perspective of those harmed? Double check.

The Holdovers’ “being there, seen that” vibe is more than compensated for by the Payne-Giamatti reunion. No one captures Payne’s dry sense of humor and quiet desperation better than Paul Giamatti. One of America’s finest actors, the Oscar nominee has been missing from the big screen for the best part of a decade (I’m not counting his movies with The Rock and neither should you). Giamatti proves guys without movie-star looks should be allowed to open movies.

As for Payne, it’s understandable he’s gun-shy after his big swing-and-a-miss, but now that he learned his lesson, I’m here for more introspective “am I the asshole?” storytelling. ■