Wednesday, November 1, 2023

In Loco Parentis: THE HOLDOVERS

Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a wintery character drama about feeling gloomy, and lost, and lonely. But it’s also full of warmth and sentimentality crackling like a warm fire in the form of human connection and memory. Of course it’s set at Christmastime. Payne here knows well what Charles Dickens knew with A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra knew with It’s a Wonderful Life and Charles Schultz knew with A Charlie Brown Christmas. To truly tap into the storytelling potential of the holiday season, one must place the cozy comforts of decked halls and twinkling lights against the snowy drifts and slippery walks and deep wells of sadness that come along with it. The holidays are full of light and mirth and high spirits and togetherness, but it’s also when the year is literally darkest, and so thoughts can turn to loss and regret, too.

So here’s The Holdovers, set on the campus of a wealthy private boarding school in New England in December 1970. The least-liked teacher (Paul Giamatti), a frumpy middle-aged expert in all things Ancient Greek and Roman, is stuck with the least-liked duty: babysitting the kids who won’t be going home for winter break. This year the group of left-behinds eventually becomes just one: a gangly student with more potential than diligence, whose stormy home life (dead father, absent mother) leaves him awfully emotionally delicate this holiday. Of course he lashes out with adolescent bluster, arrogant and ornery, going toe-to-toe with the weary grumpiness of his unhappy teacher. They make quite an awkward pair. Giamatti is a great sympathetic curmudgeon, a clearly intelligent man sulking under the competing pressures of his job. He cares about his students, and he takes a tough-love approach to molding their minds. But, like the book he wants to write but hasn’t started, there’s something incomplete about his life. His ward for the week is played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, who so perfectly fits the part of an equally intelligent youngster who just lacks the knowledge and experience to settle into the middle-aged ennui. He’s instead spikier and pricklier, prone to swings of emotion beneath a slippery exterior mask of bravado. Their scenes together are gently comic, warmly patient, and, through plenty of conversation about history—their own, mostly, but the world’s, too—allow them to gradually start to learn. It is a school, after all.

Although the contours of that concept might start to feel familiar, the movie manages to find a specific and sensitive mood beyond the cliche. The screenplay by David Hemingson is deftly drawn to allow these two to simply exist as people we come to know, and to see them let down their guarded preconceptions to recognize the humanity in the other. It’s a good fit for Payne’s direction, which has always been put to use as a fine observer of indie human drama in broadly appealing packaging. His quotidian comedy-dramas like About Schmidt, Sideways, and Nebraska are gently comic, smartly written, and full of memorable characters who feel vivid and real in their strip malls, farmlands, and suburban despair. They’re films rooted in specific spaces, and finding rich emotional detail within them. In this new film, Payne settles into the place and time with a style to match—early 70s dissolves, long takes, film grain on the image and Cat Stevens on the soundtrack. The detailed filmmaking ensures this doesn’t become a simple sentimental uplift story where the Spirit of the Season awakens an intergenerational friendship that cures their lives’ problems. Instead, it sits in their respective disappointments and depressions and slowly awakens a mutual understanding. The world is a confusing place full of problems and pitfalls. But it helps, a little, when you understand your place in it.

That’s where the third major character, a soft-spoken school cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), plays welcome counterpoint to the privilege lurking in the students and the setting. She put her son through school by working here, but couldn’t afford to send him to college. That’s how he ended up in Vietnam. There’s an early scene in the school chapel where the camera lingers on memorials for students killed in various wars. What’s the value of a quote-unquote good education if this fate is for what they’re being prepared? The movie is wise enough to match the warm melancholy of its mood, and generosity of spirit for these sad, lonely characters, to actually tackle that question. Here’s a rare movie set in a school that’s actually, in part, about education—not in the formal, curricular way, but actually to the heart of making a well-rounded liberal arts scholar in the classic sense. It’s about soul formation more than job training, about preparing students to see the world as it is, confront deep, lasting truths, and find a way to be content in that lifelong pursuit. And so it’s a movie that finds three characters in that pursuit, feeling the weight of a teacher’s words and of cultural inheritance, and the small joys and sadnesses of their holiday together. What they learn is a reason for the season—and the kind of fleeting realizations that make life worth living.

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