The Holdovers

  • 09 Mar - 15 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

We have been here before – schools with boys running around like wild horses and teachers who see their job as breaking them in. Till, there is that one teacher who sits down and listens to the boys, or girls, and changes their worlds.
Director Payne, a teller of stories bearing a lifetime of regret, brings it down to one teacher, one student, and one mess staffer. Hunham has nowhere to go, Angus (Sessa) has been abruptly told by his mother that the St Kitts vacation he was looking forward to stands cancelled, and Mary (Randolph) has just lost her son in the Vietnam War. This Christmas hence, they are the “holdovers” at the prestigious Barton School – in other words, the “Christian orphans” with no family to go to at this festive time.
Barton is a school for largely White, privileged kids, and while Angus is one of them, both Hunham and Mary are the “outsiders” who have made it into the system. Hunham was a scholarship kid who came back to teach because he loved Barton. Mary took up a job of the mess cook so that her son could study at the school. It’s over a lonesome, snowy fortnight, with the three of them confined to that one small quarter of the big school kept heated during the vacations that The Holdovers unfolds.
Angus is rebellious but smart, earning the best grades in the class but carrying the baggage of having a mother who has moved on to her next husband, and his previous expulsions from two schools. Sessa has an unusual face that can look extremely vulnerable and young at some places, and prematurely old at others. What is evident is that Angus has aged too fast, and the sorrow he bears, even when at his risible best.
Randolph is exquisite as Mary, who has buried her grief deep within folds of stoicism – as much to hold herself together, as to not let others see her as only an aggrieved mother. As a single, Black mother, she waged unsaid battles to get where she – and her son – did, and this is her last stand. Randolph has picked up several nominations, and some awards for her performance, and an Oscar might just be the next one.
That brings us to Giamatti, an actor of formidable range who is doing his second film with Payne after Sideways. It’s a pleasure to see the 56-year-old on screen as he melts from a bitter, hard-nosed teacher – who defines “bringing up good men with strong character”, and showing them little latitude, as the school’s aim – to one discovering unexpected kindness. An opening shot of his room at the school shows an unmade bed and a dirty stink with an ointment to manage piles – a glimpse of a man who has long given up on company.
Hunham’s body language changes visibly as Angus and Mary, and another staff member played sweetly by Preston, make space in his heart. He looks bigger, straighter, warmer, his good eye and the glass one expressing his wonder at this surprise so late in his life. The moment when the regret over all the lost years washes over Hunham’s face comes later – and there is hardly a throat that won’t get a lump.
As Giamatti and the film too head for the Oscars, if there is a part that juts out in The Holdovers, it is the chip the film carries on its shoulders about the “privileged” vs the 99%. In a free-flowing film such as this, where true words are spoken on all sides without hurting hearts, it is a point that is too bluntly and too frequently laid out.