The Holdovers

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


Director Alexander Payne attended Creighton Prep in Omaha. There, Payne wrote a humor column for the school newspaper and was editor of the yearbook. So he knows something of prep school life. Perhaps that’s why he decided to make a new film called “The Holdovers.”

You can catch it at Tropic Cinema.

This film tells us about a disliked teacher’s Christmas holidays at a prep school in Massachusetts. It’s a dramedy, with the “poignancy and grounded characters” reminiscent of Payne’s previous films “Nebraska,” “The Descendants,” and “Sideways.”

“I came across a writing sample for a pilot set in a prep school by David Hemingson,” says Payne. “I called Paul Giamatti, told him the idea, and he jumped at it. Ever since I worked with Paul in ‘Sideways,’ I’ve wanted to work with him again, and this role is tailor-made for him.”

It’s been almost two decades since actor Paul Giamatti (“Billions”) and Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) teamed on the wine-tasting road-trip comedy “Sideways,” a film that won Payne and Jim Taylor Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Payne made his feature film debut with the black comedy “Citizen Ruth” (1996) starring Laura Dern. From there, he moved to political satire with “Election” (1999) starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, That was followed by the Jack Nicholson comedy-drama “About Schmidt” (2002). Then he twice won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with “Sideways” (2004) starring Giamatti, and “The Descendants” (2011) starring George Clooney. He was also nominated as Best Director for those two films, and also for the Bruce Dern road film “Nebraska” (2013).

Having taken a hiatus, “The Holdovers” is Payne’s first directorial effort since the 2017 Matt Damon film “Downsizing.”

As for “The Holdovers,” David Hemingson wrote the screenplay, but guided by Payne. Quite a film buff, Payne says he was influenced by Marcel Pagnol’s “Merlusse,” a 1935 French film about a group of boarding school students stuck over the holidays with a much-despised teacher.

In this telling, “Nobody likes Paul Hunham – not his students, not his fellow faculty, not the headmaster, who all find his pomposity and rigidity exasperating.”

But is he redeemable?

The story takes place over the Christmas holidays in 1970. With no family and nowhere to go, Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is assigned to supervise students staying at the school over the break. Eventually, the only “holdovers” left at the school are Paul himself, the school’s head cook and a 15-year-old troublemaking student. During this, Paul is forced to deal with this rebellious boy who is grieving over the loss of his father.

Over the holiday break, we get to know Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph of “Empire”), the school’s head cook whose son recently died in the Vietnam War; Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), the school office administrator who also works as a waitress; and Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), the troubled student.

Barton is a thinly-disguised stand-in for Deerfield Academy, one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States. Many scenes were filmed at Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Hermon School, along with other boarding schools in the eastern part of the state.

The Boston Globe has described Deerfield as “one of the nation’s most elite boarding schools.”

“The Holdovers” is familiar territory for Paul Giamatti, a Connecticut native whose father was a Yale professor; his mother taught at a Connecticut boarding school. Giamatti also attended multiple boarding schools in Connecticut before graduating from Yale himself.

Giamatti can currently be seen in the Showtime drama “Billions.” He recently starred in a trio of films: the Indie drama “A Mouthful of Air,” a Disney adventure film “Jungle Cruise,” and the thriller “Gunpowder Milkshake.”

Here, Giamatti holds center stage, as his off-track teacher makes a rocky connection with the wayward student.

Some film critics have described “The Holdovers” as a coming-of-age film. Yes, but for whom?

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