It is a tried and true formula, and when it works well, one that can be endearing. Not original, but endearing. And so it is with THE HOLDOVERS, Alexander Payne’s beautifully realized coming-of-age tale set at an exclusive New England boarding school where the real lessons are not the ones taught in the classrooms. This formula usually includes nostalgia, and that is true here, with the action set in the pre-internet years of 1970-71, as the Vietnam War rages, the generation gap widens, and politics of many varieties come to the fore.
Our teacher (and eventual student) is Paul Hunham, a walled-eyed semi-recluse devoted to ancient history and condescendingly irritated by everything and everyone else. On the day before the winter break, he is tasked with minding the store, so to speak, for the students who have nowhere to go for the holidays. To say that no one except the teacher who has squirmed out of this job is happy about it is an example of litotes of the highest order. The mixed bag of students, ranging in age from grade- to high-school are a sweet Mormon kid (Ian Dolley) whose parents are on a mission, a cocky jock (Michael Provost) denied the family hearth until he cuts his shoulder-length hair, an unsteady Korean kid (Jim Kaplan) whose parents don’t want him to fly halfway around the world by himself, the purposefully obnoxious kid (Brady Hepner), whose parents don’t want him home at all, and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), the classic smart kid who doesn’t fit in. He’s also told at the last minute by his single, and newly remarried mother (Gillian Vigman), that he will be spending the holidays at the school because there isn’t room for him in her holiday honeymoon plans. The tension of the situation, and the comic relief, is underscored by Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head cook celebrating her first Christmas without her son, Curtis, a school alumnus killed in Vietnam.
There is perhaps no one better than Paul Giamatti to essay this sort of role. Beetling through each scene with a goodly chip on his shoulder, chafing at school politics, resenting the privilege of his students, and generally casting a baleful eye (wall or not, take your pick) on the world at large. His resentment is the armor that gets him through his work life the way the alcohol he consumes in not inconsiderable amounts eases him through his off hours. He is solitary and he likes it that way. Hence his bafflement when the school secretary (Carrie Preston) chirpily brings a tray of Christmas cookies to his rooms, and her bewilderment at the odd way he receives them.
Over the course of the two weeks in which he will be nanny to the students, he will, of course, learn a bit of compassion, and one or two of them will come to view this eccentric misanthrope in a new light. Like him? Payne, he of ELECTION and his other collaboration with Giamatti, SIDEWAYS, does not go that far, and that is why this film is, as mentioned before, endearing. It never ascribes more maturity to the students, even Tully, than can be reasonably expected of kids of those ages. Nor does it perform a deus ex machina to make Hunham a cuddly teddy bear. What does develop, though, amplifies the formula with unexpectedly moving surprises that feel right even as they are emotional gut punches. By the end of the film, we like them both much more than we thought we would, and hope that the problems with which they still need to contend will not overwhelm them.
The minor players are, for the most part, given short shrift as Hunham and Tully tussle and connect. They are there to make points and to provide the narrative impetus for story’s progression, and this they do with aplomb. The exception is Randolph as Mary Lamb. Through her eyes we are given a crash course in the embedded racism of the times, particularly among the elite that sees employees as a means to an end rather than human beings. We also see the consequences of the class system, which send poor boys to die in the war while the rich send their sons to college courtesy of the deferment available to those with the means to attend institutions of higher learning. Hers is character as complex as the times, and one whose grief infuses even the biting humor with which the story is suffused. She may not respond to the demeaning remarks about her from Hepner’s character, but there is dignity in the way she chooses not to engage. She may be looking askance at Hunham’s ongoing refusal to leave school grounds and the carefully constructed fiction of why he prefers it, but there is a wistful note in even her sharpest barb that reminds us that she, too, is a solitary soul now, but in her case, not by choice. It is a noteworthy performance that I hope is remembered as we approach awards season in earnest.
THE HOLDOVERS is funny, sad, pointed, and gentle without ever feeling disjointed. It takes its formula and makes of it something that, while not fresh, packs a genuinely poignant resonance as prisoners of their pasts look to the future with trepidation, but also hope.