Here Comes Award Season
January 2024 Issue
Reel Corner by Donne Paine
Here Comes Award Season
As award season kicks off and winners are predicted with the likes of Maestro, Killers of the Flower Moon, Barbie, Wonka, Oppenheimer, Past Lives, Poor Things, Anatomy of a Fall, and May December, my vote is on the small independent film, The Holdovers.
Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Director Alexander Payne
Nobody likes teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti)—not his students, not his fellow faculty, not the headmaster. All of them are exasperated by his rigid pompousness. With no family and nowhere to go over the Christmas holidays in 1970, Paul remains at the all-boys, elite, private boarding school to supervise the holdovers—five students who are unable to journey home. After a few long days, only one student holdover remains—a troublemaking, 15-year-old boy named Angus. He’s a good student whose bad behavior always threatens to get him expelled. Joining Paul and Angus at the empty school is head cook Mary (Randolph), an African-American woman who caters to sons of privilege and whose own son was recently killed in Vietnam. These three very different shipwrecked people form an unlikely Christmas family sharing comic misadventures during two very snowy weeks in New England. The real journey is how they help one another understand they are not beholden to their past—they can choose their own futures.
Like many festive favorite films, at its core is a cold-hearted grouch. Though significantly less imposing than Scrooge or the Grinch, Paul Hunham, classics teacher, is a pathetic creature. He puffs himself up with relentless quotes and factoids from ancient history: “Hence the term punitive,” concludes one of his insufferable asides—the one area of life that he has mastered. He is adept at dropping large words into casual conversation, but in every other sense, he falls short: a farting, wheezing, mean, hypocritical, weapons-grade humbugger. Plus, he is a truly terrible gift-giver. In other words, the worst possible choice of person to look after a group of lonely students forced to haunt their empty school over the holidays.
Handing such a role to Giamatti is like handing the keys of a very expensive lab to Oppenheimer. Except the results are significantly more joyous. He precisely inhabits the wall-eyed, odd-smelling misanthrope, making the early scenes—like the one in which Hunham forces his fed-up charges to jog through the snow (“Without sufficient exercise the body devours itself!”), all while standing stock-still, sucking furiously on his pipe—so raucously funny! And, as Hunham’s acerbic exterior gradually, inevitably, melts like an icicle, revealing the sad, desperate human beneath, the actor makes him a person with whom you have no choice but to fall in love.
Of course, it’s not just the Giamatti solo show. This wintry yarn is filled with a brace of other memorable characters. Newcomer Dominic Sessa is terrific as central student Angus, abandoned by his mother and stepfather to a winter of discontent: a decent guy seething under a surface of pain and anger. And relative unknown Da’Vine Joy Randolph, playing school cook Mary, is magnificent, solid and practical—the polar opposite to Hunham’s Cicero-obsessed academic—but mired in grief for her dead son, the lone Barton Boy dispatched to Vietnam on account of his skin color. This unlikely trio may go on a predictable trajectory from mutual dislike to acceptance and even flickers of friendship but the way the story unfolds never feels cheap or formulaic. A must see!
References: www.imbd.com , www.empireline.com
Donne Paine, film enthusiast, once lived around the corner from the Orson Wells Theater in Cambridge, Massachu-setts, where her strong interest in films, especially independent ones, began. Supporter of the arts, especially films, she has traveled to local and national film festivals including Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca. There is nothing like seeing a film on the big screen. She encourages film goers to support Hilton Head local theaters, Park Plaza Theater and Northridge. To support her habit of frequent movie going, Donne is a vaccine medicine nurse consultant and also the author of 4 Interview Pillars available on Amazon. See you at the movies!