Friday, September 01, 2023

The Holdovers (world premiere in the presence of Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne: The Holdovers (US 2023) with Dominic Sessa (Angus), Paul Giamatti (Paul) and Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Mary).

Made possible by a donation from Matthew H. & Natalie Bernstein.
Palm, Telluride Film Festival (TFF), 1 Sep 2023.

Larry Gross (TFF 2023): " Paul (Paul Giamatti), an aging classics professor at an elite New England prep school, is at odds with his students. His rigidly judgmental teaching methods are, to say the least, outdated. When he is thrown together for a long Christmas break with Angus (Dominic Sessa), a smart, charismatic and self-destructive teen, and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s grieving cook, we enter territory that reminds us of John Hughes’ THE BREAKFAST CLUB … but David Hemingson’s nuanced script has much more in its mind. Giamatti is effortlessly commanding from the start, and Sessa and Randolph are outstanding. In ABOUT SCHMIDT, SIDEWAYS and NEBRASKA, director Alexander Payne proved himself a master in depicting isolated people forced to confront their fears and illusions. Here, his uncanny grasp of the minute particulars of everyday conflict reaches new depths of both comedy and pain, in a blend reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s finest works. " –LG (U.S., 2023, 133 m) In person: Alexander Payne

Festival premiere: 31 Aug 2023 Telluride Film Festival.

AA: Alexander Payne is at his best in The Holdovers, a character-driven drama set in a New England elite school. The film milieu is a compendium of location shooting in five different schools. It takes place at Christmastime in 1970, and the timeframe continues beyond the New Year celebration in 1971.

Written by David Hemingson, the well-plotted movie is gratifying in psychological wisdom. The cast of characters is gradually reduced to a trio of "holdovers", the professor (Paul Giamatti at his very best), Angus (Dominic Sessa in a remarkable feature film debut) and Mary (the talented comedienne Da'Vine Joy Randolph expanding her scope to drama and tragedy, proving again that a great comedian is great also in tragedy).

Paul has been punished to stay at the school for the duration of the Christmas holiday because he has refused to tweak grades for a son of a prominent donor. Everybody hates Paul who is undiplomatic and crass. But his sense of integrity is high. He sees his essential contribution to the future of his students in asking them to try their best. In the engrossing climax Paul stands up against the headmaster to defend the problem student Angus whose unique character and talent he has learned to admire during their Christmastime adventure.

Angus the problem student is first seen as a rich spoiled kid, but during the holiday weeks we learn new, disturbing features of his Werdegang, shatteringly in a forbidden "field trip" to Boston. There Angus takes us to a nursing home to meet his despondent father who has lost his mental balance. In each successive scene we register more clearly how little we know about his family situation.

Mary, the Black head cook of the school, has lost her beloved son Curtis, killed in action in the Vietnam War. She has decided to remain at the school because it is her memorial for the high hopes she had had of a better future for her talented son. Because of their lack of financial means, Mary had not been able to send Curtis to college, and thus he did not have student deferment unlike his classmates. The Holdovers is the second remarkable film I have recently seen about the theme of inequality in American higher education: it was also central in James Gray's Armageddon Time.

The excellent cinematography is by Eigil Bryld, subtle and rich in the colour world of wintertime Massachusetts. Music is essential: the composer Mark Orton creates a score finely expressing the humour and the emotion of the narrative. The soundtrack is also a "greatest hits of Christmas tunes", appealing without evading the obvious. Paul's character is evident in the diegetic music: the slow movement of Beethoven's fifth piano concerto and Händel's "Ombra mai fu". An amusing feature is Mary being the disc jockey at the Christmas party, stubbornly avoiding contemporary pop hits.

Among the strengths of the film is a deeply felt authenticity in the university world. It is also an offbeat but profound celebration of the study of the classical Antiquity. And a vision of America during wartime.

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