Alexander Payne reteams with his Sideways collaborator, actor Paul Giamatti, for The Holdovers, a superb drama full of heartfelt humane brilliance. Giamatti plays an irascible history teacher who has few friends, a wandering eye condition, an odour problem and a cantankerous nature; he is blunt and ferociously intelligent, but lets no-one in – especially not the privileged students he teaches in a remote prep school.
Christmas approaches, and he again draws the short straw to be caretaker of the students who do not return to their parents over the festive break. He must look out for them as the snow descends, and the Yuletide frivolity supposedly breaks out, though is aided in his plight by cook Da’Vine Joy Randolph – a chainsmoker with a smart mouth who tolerates his foibles. When they are left with one student in their charge, a troubled, gawky teen played with winning snideness by Dominic Sessa, their initially fractious relationship turns into something gloriously heartfelt.
Sessa’s family background is troubled and, in the absence of a paternal figure, Giamatti awkwardly and winningly fills the void with truly realising how much he needs it. Payne keeps David Hemingson’s crisp, witty and moving script hurtling along whilst allowing us to live in this trio of mismatched characters’ shoes.
The Holdovers is a rich drama with plenty of comedy which, like many of Payne’s films, suckerpunches you with emotion. Giamatti, pompous but tragic, has never been better and Randolph is superb as her battle with grief surfaces. Payne’s unflashy direction allows the actors room to breathe without indulgence in a wonderful, tender tale that will have you wiping a gentle tear away at several moments.
Dir: Alexander Payne (15, 133 mins)
In cinemas from Fri 19 Jan
words KEIRON SELF