The perfect showcase for Paul Giamatti's one-of-a-kind quirk, THE HOLDOVERS reunites Director Alexander Payne and Giamatti for the first time since "Sideways" nearly 20 years ago.
From the opening frames, an old-style R rating announcement and ancient Focus Features logo, Payne immerses you into 1970, even layering old film pops and scratches into the opening moments. It takes you back to a different time.
Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham, a venerable and very grumpy History teacher at a high school populated by sons of the very rich.
He's hilariously rude, swooping in to drop finals papers on each desk with grades slashed across them in huge red letters. F+ is my favorite.
At the last minute, he's selected to stay at the school and oversee the Holdovers, the kids that, for whatever reason, wont be going home for Christmas holiday.
The kids range in age from about ten to high school seniors.
They're a real life mix of cocky, lonely, brainy and sad.
Senior Angus Tully stands out. He's the quiet, best student in Hunham's class, an emotional powderkeg. Newcomer Dominic Sessa is fantastic as Angus, driving huge laughs as he goes toe-to-toe with his teacher.
More Dictator than educator, Hunham berates and destroys, insulting the boys in Latin and comparing their ambition to Greek history.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph (The Lost City) is terrific as lead cook at the schools, Mary Lamb. She's recently lost her son in the Vietnam war and Hunham offers the softer side of his personality up to her exclusively. She, in turn, tries to inject just a fragment of humanity in him, introducing him to "The Newlywed Game" and sharing a glass of bourbon with him in a quiet moment.
Writer David Hemingson unwinds the two weeks of holiday break with realistic dialogue, many emotional twists and turns and some brilliant choices, setting up a path for Hunham, Angus and Mary to take a "field trip" to Chicago.
Moment after moment surprises, offering a very different take than a predictable "grumpy teacher softens up" story.
As great as Giamatti is, Sessa and Randolph equal him. There isn't a false move in Randolph's performance as Mary, catering to sons of the rich after losing her own son in a meaningless war.
This is Sessa's on-screen debut. Before filming, he had only acted on stage in college plays. He's a find. I can't wait to see what he does next.
Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt) continues his legacy of creating seamless blends of comedy and drama, capturing real-life in all it's unpredictable mess. Giamatti is perfect, from his first scene to the final camera shot.
After the movie, my wife said "I'd love to see a sequel ten years later to see where they are in their lives." She's right. It's a testament to Hemingson and Payne that they've created characters that you truly invest in.
This is a film you'll still be thinking about long after those 70's style end credits roll.
THE HOLDOVERS is a perfect, adult, heartfelt holiday film. I'll grab Hunham's favorite red grading pencil and give this one a well earned, giant A.