US, 2023, 133 minutes, Colour
Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston.
Directed by Alexander Payne
In the long ago good old days, students who didn’t go home for the holidays were described as “staying back”. The Staybackers doesn’t sound like a very good title for a movie. The American, Holdovers, sounds better.
The Holdovers has been nominated for many awards, Paul Giamatti winning a Best Actor Golden Globe, and, not surprisingly when we watch the film, Da’Vine Joy Randolph has won more than a dozen Best Supporting Actress awards.
The setting is 1970, one of those elite boys boarding schools, perhaps not too far from the school in Dead Poets Society. But the boys we are to look at here have no great yen for learning, let alone poetry. And, the teacher we focus on, Paul Hunham, played with fascinating complexity by Paul Giamatti, might have shared the ideals of Robin Williams’ creative teaching, but has almost given up long since.
Perhaps a better comparison with teachers in the film world might be a Goodbye Mr Chips variation.
When we know that some of the students can’t go home for the Christmas break and that the obsequious Headmaster (currying favour with financial donors) asks Mr Hunham to be responsible for the holdovers, two weeks, we are not surprised at some of the turn of events. However, there really are some very surprising turns of events which keep us attentive, even to the ending.
The screenplay was written by David Hemingson who has had long experience writing for television. It is often slick, smart, sarcastic, and ironic. But, at its core, there is heart. And direction is by Alexander Payne, a strong reputation with films like Sideways, The Descendants (and his high school drama about an ambitious young student clashing with her teacher, Election).
The thing is that Mr Hunham is a reclusive grump, a love for ancient civilisations and the ability to quote and refer to Roman and Greek characters. The students dislike him intensely. And, it would seem, he doesn’t like himself all that much. The main student, holdover, is Angus, played by Dominic Sessa, 17, surly, expelled from previous schools, abandoned for the holidays by his mother and her new husband. As expected, lots of clash.
The other principal character is the cook, Mary, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, whose son, an African American exception student at the school, has just been killed in Vietnam. She is a strong character. She is a shrewd character. And, sometimes, she is a facilitator between teacher and student.
As the film goes on, we are reminded that we are often very secretive about our lives. Gradually, we do learn a lot about Mr Hunham, sadly. And we learn more about Angus, especially in the ever more intense interactions between the two. They are not heroes of the film. They are not villains. There is something of both, especially, to our surprise, as more truth is told – and, altruistically, non-truth is told.
It is good to see Paul Giamatti back on the big screen after so much television (84 episodes of Billions). He is one of the US’s best versatile actors.
By Fr Peter Malone MSC
Published: 2 February 2024