WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
‘The Holdovers’ – they don’t make movies like this anymore… except they did!
Beyond its sharp wit and terrific dialogue, it’s the tenderness of Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers’ that finally gets to you. It’s funny, bittersweet and powerfully poignant, with immaculate performances bringing to life its three main characters. And if it feels like the sort of film we don’t see anymore, it’s because the nostalgic setting and bygone look and feel facilitate full-scale immersion in another era.
Actor Paul Giamatti has a knack for awkwardness. He is a master of believably playing characters who are uncomfortable in their own skin.
He leans into this underappreciated talent with astonishing success in The Holdovers, just as he did in Sideways, his last collaboration with director Alexander Payne, about 20 years ago.
His portrayal of a tightly wound sourpuss with a lifetime’s worth of regrets and possibly a few dark secrets in his closet is complemented by his character’s physical misfortunes, most prominent of which is a case of strabismus (not just a vaguely lazy eye, but a severe misalignment of his eyes that sets him up as either shifty or comical, maybe both).
And then there’s his haemorrhoids, and his admission that he suffers from so-called fish odour syndrome, an actual metabolic condition (trimethylaminuria, look it up!) which causes him to smell bad.
Being physically a bit fishy is a convincing start for a character-driven comedy, but it’s the sly tenderness with which Giamatti reveals his character’s humanity that has earned him an Oscar nomination for this portrayal of a dislikable teacher at a New England boarding school at the start of the 1970s. The film’s in competition for Best Picture, too, up against Oppenheimer and Barbie.
Despite feeling like a “small film” alongside those 2023 box-office juggernauts, though, The Holdovers hits all the right buttons, and fills a large space in your heart by the time it ends.
Because, despite all his foibles, Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is ultimately disarming. He wins us over, his great achievement being to create not some sort of laughable parody of a disagreeable man, but someone who is as flawed and worthy of love as any of us. In the end, we kind of adore him.
For the actor fleshing out this character, it’s a big ask.
Paul’s physical shortcomings are nothing compared with his gruff, pent-up personality. He is, by design, hard to like: a crotchety middle-aged bachelor who, as he doles out low grades to unworthy students, adds a touch of meanness in the form of disparaging (and very funny) insults that emphasise his disdain for the “hormonal vulgarians” he’s tasked with teaching.
He’s a card-carrying curmudgeon, a committed misanthrope who pushes the boys’ buttons, refuses to back down when they make appeals to his humanity, piles on more work when they beg him for a break. He’s that teacher with the nasty nickname (“Walleye”, because – you guessed it – of the strabismus); even the school’s principal (Paul’s former pupil) treats him like a has-been loser.
You suspect perhaps that he’s bitter because they’re all well-off boys drowning in privilege; among them is a senator’s son, and in one scene a boy’s father arrives at the school by helicopter.
There is also a sense that perhaps his behaviour is connected to some sort of moral imperative to make better men of the “rancid little philistines” in his care. Perhaps he hopes that, by instilling in them his knowledge of the classics, he can mould them into something other than the failure he has become.
In narrative terms, there’s the possibility these boys who are his enemies may in fact hold the key to Paul’s redemption. And you can’t help imagining that, like so many tragic heroes, this flub of a man might once have been destined for some sort of greatness himself.
And since even a small sliver of hope exists, all is not lost.
There is a touching moment, for example, when a fellow teacher offers Paul a few words of kindness. He is so struck by the idea that she likes him for who he is, that when she invites him to a Christmas party at her home, we see in him a flicker of hope that, just maybe, she is romantically attracted to him. That perhaps her invitation is something other than merely feeling sorry for him.
It’s moments such as these, evidence of some lingering hope buried deep in Paul’s heart (and Giamatti’s capacity to convey it), which make this film sparkle in ways that add a kind of sublime magic to the underlying melancholy.
This is what stories are for, after all: putting characters through their paces, testing their mettle in uncomfortable situations, having them endure challenges that trick them into revealing some unexpected inner truth.
Which is where the film’s two other central figures come in, characters whose proximity creates opportunity for a few twists and turns – and a road trip – that might just dislodge Paul from his funk.
It’s also where the film’s title comes in. As punishment for refusing to give a passing grade to the son of one of the school’s rich benefactors, Paul is assigned to remain on the job through the winter vacation. He must essentially babysit the “holdovers”, those boys who for whatever reason remain in residence at the school because they have nowhere else to go during the Christmas break.
One of these holdovers is Angus (wonderfully played by Dominic Sessa), full of promise and full of nonsense, all lanky and determined, with sad eyes that seem mired in some repressed anger that might be more than mere teenage angst or adolescent rage. Recalcitrant, obstreperous, slightly mischievous, but ultimately just a lad on the cusp of manhood hoping to be loved, he is almost inconsolable when at the last moment he’s stuck at school instead of joining his mother and her new husband on their honeymoon in Saint Kitts.
Also with them, and living in a funk of her own is Mary (a powerful performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, favoured to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), who is the school’s head cook.
She is also a black single mother mourning the recent loss of her son. Much of the film’s social conscience, its quiet attack on class and racial inequality, rises up through her: Mary had taken the job, cooking for spoiled white boys in order to give her son a better life, in return for the free schooling that came with what she considers a menial role.
Once her son had graduated, rather than going to college like his privileged classmates, financial circumstances determined that he should go to Vietnam instead, and there he perished. Now, for Mary, the school is both a ceaseless reminder of the son she’s lost, and the one place where she still feels close to him. So she, like Paul, is stuck there.
Mary is haunted, of course, and Randolph extracts and embodies her all-consuming hurt with devastating tenderness. It’s in the hollowed-out despair behind her eyes, the way she moves as though she is a ghost, the anguish of a mother existing while her son is dead.
And yet we also witness her impossible strength as she does what she has to do to carry on. Her pent-up sorrow produces one of 2023’s most heartbreaking cinematic moments: a grieving mother clutching her departed son’s baby clothes before passing them on to her pregnant sister.
This band of misfits – Paul, Angus and Mary – are initially forced to be together, but must ultimately forge something resembling kinship, familial closeness. It’s never an easy ride. We get a glimpse of the past and insight into the difficult paths they’ve had to navigate. We’re shown that even a teenager can have baggage, that a mother’s loss is insurmountable, and that decades on we cannot undo history, only endeavour to change the future.
Which is somewhat ironic because the film is itself like a trip back in time, a paean to the past.
The Holdovers isn’t just set in the early 1970s, it feels in every respect as though it was actually made 50 years ago, in an era when filmmaking’s focus was less on sensation and affect, more committed to story and character. Call it old-fashioned if you like, but this movie provides precisely the opposite of all those big-budget spandex-and-CGI-laden blockbusters we’re inundated with these days.
There’s the grainy texture, the moody lighting and a sustained atmosphere that gives it the imprint of a film made in another time.
A time when, well, they made movies like this one.
Rather than digital effects and fast cuts to a high-energy soundtrack, it uses fierce dialogue and powerful acting to explore the idea that being human is about working through the heartache and disappointment, and sometimes allowing ourselves to be bigger than we think we are, pushing ourselves beyond our self-imposed limitations.
It’s about recognising that people are more than their faults and eccentricities, that we all have wider backstories, and we’re all trying to deal with things we keep hidden inside.
Being that teacher with the dark secret and darker disappointments; being that woman who will forever be bruised by the loss of her son; being that boy whose parents have abandoned him… These are representations of who we are as human beings: awkward, fragile, complex, heartbroken, often saying the wrong things, frequently getting it completely wrong and acting in ways we regret.
But that’s okay, because we’re all in it together. And maybe we can chip in and make the journey a little easier, a little more hopeful, simply by being there for one another. DM
The Holdovers opened in South Africans cinemas on 9 February 2024.