‘Holdovers’ rules with two-sided barbs

The Holdovers captures a poignant moment in a teen’s life. Dominic Sessa in a breakthrough role plays Angus, a distraught student at a boy’s academy on the cusp of adulthood.

In bittersweet contrast to Angus is his antagonist professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti),  a crusty professor who quotes Cicero with the same ease that he flunks students.

The performances of Sessa, who’s a total newcomer, and Giamatti are peerless, only matched by Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary the head cook at the private school. Mary’s son had been a student at Barton Academy, and recently died in Vietnam.

Payne sets The Holdovers from 1970 Christmas through 1971 New Year’s. Yet the film doesn’t just take place in the era; the entire sheen has a faded ‘70s sensibility. It literally looks like the lenses used are from that time.

The film proper begins with a mock Focus Features logo that looks like a ‘70s logo completely matched with animated letters and squiggly sound cues. There’s even a “1971” copyright in the opening credits, natch done with Roman numerals “MCMLXXI.” Focus Features came about in the early 2000s, itself a morphing on indie-style studio boutique releasing divisions of the ’90s like USA Films.

A handful of students must stay in residence over the Christmas holidays for a number of reasons; everything from the son of a business magnate won’t cut his hair to parents are missionaries in a foreign country. Angus feels rejected when at the last minute his mother phones with the news that her new husband, his stepfather, and her are finally going on their honeymoon that has been postponed for the last six months.

Angus is not a happy camper. Professor Hunham himself is being academically spurned for flunking a donor’s son and gets the Christmas assignment to watch over the students.

Giamatti rules this film with a clever portrait of an aging educator. The production does something to Giamatti’s eyes, either digitally or with practical effects. One eye looks in a different direction from the other eye. There’s a contact lens credit in the final roll. Strabismus is the medical name for misaligned eyes.

Mary, Paul, and Angus find themselves the last holdovers during the holidays and their bonding occurs in unexpected ways. No matter which way the characters roll the audience interprets the events in an emotional way.

All three have physical ways of dealing with their insecurities. Angus walks with his arms swaying in an uncomfortable manner; Paul has a condition that causes his sweat glands to smell like fish; Mary holds all her emotions in until the dam has to break. Viewers will be totally surprised when gangly Angus gets kissed by a girl at a Christmas Eve party.

Barton Academy itself holds secrets. The staff is bunked in a central building because heat to the dorms has been cut off during the holidays. There’s a chapel and a gym and a dining room, one of the warm rooms with its proximity to the kitchen. While not quite the Overlook Hotel the environment does suggest a certain snowbound surrounding.

The Holdovers operates like a two-sided sword. One edge is lightly humorous mostly in an existential way, while the other side has sharp barbs that leave marks.

Director Alexander Payne has crafted one of the best films of the year, so far anyway.

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