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Paul Giamatti & Alexander Payne Reteam for One of the Best Movies of the Year in 'The Holdovers'

"You don't tell a boy that's been left behind at Christmas that you're aching to cut him loose."

In 2004, director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti collaborated on the film, "Sideways." Surrounding an adventurous road trip to California wine country, the movie was a box office success and an even bigger hit with critics. It cemented Giamatti's standing as a lead actor, breaking the performer free of off-beat and quirky side characters his filmography had amassed up to this point.

Payne and Giamatti have reteamed for a new holiday-themed dramedy filled with a bah-humbug spirit, emotional setbacks, and award-worthy performances. "The Holdovers" stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, a strict Massachusetts teacher and alumnus of his current school, Barton Academy. Disliked by almost every one of his students, Hunham's disgruntled nature matches the wintery conditions of the 1970s-set all-boys boarding school as students soon depart for the Christmas holiday to be with their families.

Hunham is tasked with babysitting those students who, for one reason or another, could not travel home for the holidays. Initially, a handful of boys are kept under Hunham's watchful eye, but soon, many depart on a ski vacation led by one of the boys' fathers. They all leave except for Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), a rebellious and moody teenager determined to get through the holiday season in peace and quiet. Unlucky for him, Hunham assigns coursework over the holiday break, and the two accompany school cook Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) for meals and conversation.

The trio becomes the film's emphasis as each character deals with internal struggles. The quick-witted Angus is angry over his mother's absence from his life and acts out when anyone asks about his father. Mary lost her son to the ongoing Vietnam War, leaving her devastated and resentful. Hunham has no family, spouse, or friends, most likely due to his fussy and cranky attitude towards those who defy him. The three might not be a match made in heaven, but they are all they've got during Christmas and New Years.

"The Holdovers" sets the clock back 50 years in its execution of a minor premise structure that grows with every minute the three main actors spend time together on film. The grainy texture of Payne's direction gives the movie an old-timey consistency that feels lived-in and misunderstood. The snowy setting of Barton Academy after hours makes for a "Breakfast Club" meets "Dead Poets Society" composition. Still, this film stands on its own two feet with dark humor and stark realizations as it progresses.

This might in fact be Paul Giamatti's best performance to date. For an actor with an aptitude for portraying schmucks as well as he has for decades, his rendition of Paul Hunham takes the cake. An alcoholic yet self-aware asshole has never been played with as much gravitas and unflinching mannerisms as Giamatti gives Hunham. His repartee provoked by Angus's troubled quips provides the actor with much to play with as the three bond during a miserable winter to usher in the new year.

However, Giamatti alone cannot carry this film, and lucky for the audience that Alexander Payne chose to cast worthy performers like Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa to round out the small ensemble. Randolph is a visionary actor in the role of Mary, breathing life into the stillness of a mother grieving the loss of a child. The character's heart and soul are poured into every inch of Randolph's movements, and she tends to be Hunham's Achilles' heel when it comes to confrontations. For a film debut, Sessa astonishes in his Christmas Orphan role by riding a character arc so profound and heartbreaking that even Hunham doesn't see it when it's staring him in square the face.

At the beginning of "The Holdovers," it's abundantly clear that this will be a story of survival meets connection. The most obvious contenders will eventually challenge Hunham's traditional and stubborn ways, and comprehension of others' feelings will slowly come into focus. Even though the premise might seem transparent from the get-go, the rollercoaster ride of getting from Point A to Point B matters most in this film. Writer David Hemingson has crafted an incredibly air-tight, clever, and grounded script that leaves nothing on the table and everything for the taking. The dialogue, glances, and emotional outbursts are earned to a degree that it's almost masterful.

If "The Holdovers" was made in 1971, I would believe it. That's how authentic and enigmatic it feels.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟🎟🎟


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