Recently I lamented the dearth of intelligent, mid-budget Hollywood movies in this blockbuster-obsessed cinematic world. The Holdovers is a welcome example of the kind of movie I meant.
It's directed by Alexander Payne, whose films - originals or adaptations, written or just directed by him - have been the kind I am talking about.
They're well-written, varied and engaging, with good dialogue and interesting characters. We're talking about films like Election, Sideways, About Schmidt and Nebraska. We'll forgive the disappointing Downsizing, but even that was an honourable attempt.
The Holdovers was written by David Hemison, a prolific sitcom writer who delved into his own prep-school background for this story, which was originally a TV pilot. While
The Holdovers is often very funny, this isn't a gagfest, more of a poignant comedy. Much of it is predictable, there are some familiar prep-school tropes, and it certainly takes its time unfolding. But it was a pleasure to spend the time with these actors and their characters.
Oddly, it's been released in January when it is, at least in part, a Christmas movie: a lot of the soundtrack is Christmas carols. But the feelings here don't become cloyingly sentimental.
In December 1970, the students at Barton Academy are looking forward to their Christmas break, But Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) dampens the spirits of one of his ancient history classes with his tough grading and assigning of extra work as a precondition for retaking the test many failed.
Paul - one of those old-school teachers who wears a bow tie and smokes a pipe - is strict and curmudgeonly and is disliked by staff and students alike (his nickname among the latter is "Walleye").
He refused to pass the son of a wealthy donor, leading to the boy's Ivy League admission to be rescinded.
That, combined with a colleague's flimsy excuse, means he's stuck looking after the students who for one reason or another can't go home for Christmas. The only other person around is the head cook, Mary Lamb ( Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who's mourning the death of her son, a recent graduate, in Vietnam.
It's not a happy time for any of them but when one boy's father arrives in a helicopter and offers to take the boys on a ski trip, all but one are able to quickly secure permission and fly away (a bit of a clumsy contrivance, this).
The lone "holdover" is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose mother and stepfather are on their belated honeymoon and could not be reached.
Angus is a smart but rebellious student - he's been kicked out of multiple schools - and it seems like he and Paul are in for a miserable time together. But, as you probably guessed, with some prodding from the kindly Mary, the ice between them starts to thaw. Both teacher and student begin to let their guards down a little, adventures are had, and secrets are shared and kept. And they, and Mary, are the better for their time together.
Payne consciously tried to evoke the period in which his film is set - Eigil Bryld's cinematography with its warm, golden-brown hues is certainly reminiscent of the 1970s - and the prep-school settings, evoking wealth and privilege, are beautifully captured.
Giamatti is a superb actor and he makes Paul's gradual transition convincing and compelling: a former scholarship student who returned to the school to teach, it's like he's taken refuge from the outside and tries to firmly control what he can of his little world. But there's a warmer side to him that gradually emerges.
Randolph is touching as the woman trying to deal with the loss of her son but also able to care for others and Sessa, making an auspicious film debut, is a real find playing a character who's a kindred spirit in many ways to his teacher, presenting one defensive image to the world while much goes on underneath the surface.
While some of this might sound cliched, it's handled really well. Not everything becomes sweetness and light and, believably, not all the problems raised are resolved. And while the Honour Code is invoked, the characters understand that sometimes lying can be the right thing to do.