The Holdovers delivers laughter and tears

Photo courtesy of Focus Features
ALONE TOGETHER: After his newly remarried mother informs him their holiday is canceled, boarding school student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, left) is forced to spend the Christmas with his history teacher, Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti), in The Holdovers, screening in local theaters.

Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Nebraska, The Descendants) directs this dramedy set in 1970 starring Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, an unliked and ill-tempered history teacher at Barton Academy, a remote New England boarding school. Over the holidays, Hunham gets stuck on campus overseeing the handful of students with nowhere to go, in particular Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a troubled kid grieving the loss of his father. With help from school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who’s grieving the loss of her soldier son in Vietnam, Hunham and Tully discover they’re not so different from one another. (133 min.) 

Glen: Mr. Hunham is a real hard-ass, the sort of intractable teacher that students hate. He’s exacting, unforgiving, and wholly lacking in empathy … at least to his students. He thinks he’s challenging them to be better, molding them into “Barton Men”—men of integrity. To his students, he’s just an out of touch, bitter grouch. Hunham’s also disliked by headmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman), especially after he failed the son of one of the school’s biggest donors, scuttling the student’s chance to go to an Ivy League university, which is why he ends up getting roped into overseeing the “holdovers,” kids with nowhere to go over the holidays. It’s a recipe for acrimony … hilarious acrimony.

Anna: “Walleye” is what students call Hunham, who has a distinctive lazy eye and an off-putting smell. He isn’t disposed to kindness, and he doesn’t give his students a break—handing out C’s, D’s, and F’s one after another. Tully actually fairs pretty well in Hunham’s Ancient Civilizations class, but even relatively high grades don’t endear the student to his teacher. Payne is doing what he does best, creating a quiet, introspective journey for his audience. Everyone here is flawed, everyone is hurt, and everyone is carrying weight beyond themselves. Mary lost her son Curtis in Vietnam while he was trying to earn himself a scholarship. It seems both she and Hunham turn to the bottle as their sympathetic ear. However, everyone here is incredibly seeable—life is messy, as The Holdovers demonstrates, much like Payne’s other films. I’m a sucker for this director. I’ll watch whatever he puts out.

Glen: The other holdovers are insufferable prick Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner), Korean exchange student Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan), sweet but nervous Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley), and rich kid Jason Smith (Michael Provost), who’s left at school because his father won’t let him come home until he cuts his hair. Eventually, Jason’s dad caves and drops into Barton via helicopter, offering to take all the holdovers on an all-expenses-paid ski vacation. Great news for everyone but Tully, whose mother can’t be reached to give permission. Now it’s just Hunham and Tully, and it seems like it couldn’t get any worse … until it does. Soon, however, the mismatched pair begin to understand the sources of one another’s bitterness, and before long, we’re on the road to catharsis city. It’s a rutty road, and it’s not a Hollywood ending, but eventually they both find a way out of their respective ruts.

Anna: These two needed each other, even when they really don’t like each other. Hunham is lonely but seems to be by design. He’s a grouch who prefers his own company, but we soon see cracks in that façade. Tully’s also a loner, and we come to know his mother is choosing a new life over him. While some might find the pace slow, this film’s a study in what it means to be human and find connection—even to those who’d cut themselves off long ago. I’ll be watching this again, as I do with all of Payne’s films. They’re quietly mesmerizing.

New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Comment at [email protected].

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