A New Entry in the Prep School Film Canon
Among prep school movies, Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” is an immediate and indisputable classic. Most such films revolve around an impassioned teacher eager to shape young minds, but that’s not how anyone would describe Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti). The film’s bitter and beleaguered protagonist, Hunham teaches classics at a New England boarding school, where he sees himself as a defender of truth and virtue, yet he is someone who takes great pleasure in pillorying his students for their lackadaisical attitude. In public and private, he calls them “rancid little philistines,” “entitled little degenerates,” and, in a turn of phrase only a master of the English language could conjure, “snarling Visigoths.”
You’ve probably already figured out it’s a perfect role for Giamatti, a master of onscreen arrogance since his days playing “Pig Vomit” in the Howard Stern movie. The last time he and Payne got together, they made the Oscar-nominated “Sideways,” in which Giamatti played Miles, a middle-school teacher and wine snob with a great palate and poor people skills. If Miles aged himself too long, he might have turned into Mr. Hunham, who is older, sadder, and a little more disgusting. He’s paunchy and glass-eyed, and his body is unable to synthesize trimethylamine, which makes him smell more and more like fish as the day goes on. Of course, that unpleasant exterior only makes it more rewarding when he reveals his gooey center.
The movie starts with a punishment. After flunking the son of an important alumnus in his Ancient Civilizations class, Hunham is given the unenviable assignment of staying at school over winter break to supervise those students who cannot be with their families. Ultimately, he ends up with just one: Angus (Dominic Cessa), who excels at academics, but has a problem with authority. Joining them is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook whose son was recently killed in Vietnam.
These three outcasts share a fundamental sadness: None has a family they can count on. It doesn’t take an expert in plotting to know that they will create a chosen family by the time the film concludes, but Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson chart a rough road to their mutual salvation. As the characters move throughout the cavernous school, and then to town to mix it up with the locals, and eventually to Boston to run a family errand, the script locates the way damaged people seek out the roles they were denied in their own family — the father-son dynamic formed by Henham and Angus is volatile, to say the least — and then rebel against the very affection they were seeking. Bonding moments are followed by feelings of betrayal. These people do not let down their defenses without a fight, which keeps the film’s more sentimental moments from feeling unearned.
To get there, it takes a cast willing to brave the darkness of their characters’ souls, and while Giamatti is predictably perfect in his role, it’s a true testament to his co-stars that they’re able to hold their own against him. Payne loves to use first-time actors, and Cessa might be his greatest find yet. Handsome but gaunt, his Angus is on the verge of manhood but still lacking in some basic nourishment, and Cessa navigates the twisty moods of his character with ease.
Similarly, Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a quiet, anguished presence who perfectly complements the neurotic maleness. When Hunham mentions that he’s thinking of writing a monograph (“I’m just not sure I have a whole book in me),” Randolph’s offhand response is piercing: “You can’t even dream a whole dream.” It’s a surprising but effective approach to manifesting grief, revealing more by underplaying her pain than she would with the loud, anguished outbursts that comprise Oscar clips.
This first-rate character piece is elevated by Payne’s attention to period detail. Set in the 1970s, “The Holdovers” captures the mood and aesthetic of its time without ever relying on nostalgia. Frequent references to Nixon and the Vietnam War set the tone of gloom that hangs over these depressives, while Payne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld capture the grainy, washed-out look of New Hollywood. It works like a time machine, bringing us back to an era that, while it might not have been happier than our own, at least produced better cinema. “The Holdovers” will make you feel like it’s not too late to fix what ails us.