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‘The Holdovers’ is Payne’s paean to all the lonely people

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph shine in this story of three shipwrecked souls at a Western Mass. prep school

From left: Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in "The Holdovers."Seacia Pavao/Associated Press

Every school has a teacher everyone hates. At Barton Academy, the snooty Western Massachusetts prep school of director Alexander Payne’s dramedy “The Holdovers,” it’s ancient civilization teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti).

Mr. Hunham is strict, a brutal grader (he gives F+ grades!), unyielding, and prone to insults and snide commentary. By his own admission, he has a detectable and somewhat off-putting body odor due to a health condition. The word “curmudgeon” doesn’t go far enough to establish his level of grumpiness.

Paul Giamatti in a scene from "The Holdovers." Uncredited/Associated Press

Hunham hates the students as much as they hate him and, dare I say it, deservingly so. These teens are a bunch of privileged brats who have been sent to Barton by wealthy parents who don’t want them around. It’s 1970, and college admission is one way men can avoid going to war. Colleges will happily take such prestigious students.


At Barton, it’s an open secret that students will coast by whether they’re doing well or not, a notion with which Mr. Hunham disagrees. After all, he recently failed a US senator’s kid, a faux pas that put him in the doghouse with headmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman). The kid whose surname is on a school building passes no matter what.

One of the darker jokes in “The Holdovers” is that Hunham has been at the school so long that his boss was once his student — so, there’s plenty of bad blood between them. As punishment for the incident with the senator’s kid, Hunham is put in charge of this year’s holdovers; that is, students who have nowhere to go during the winter break and must stay in their dorms on campus.

Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti in a scene from "The Holdovers." Seacia Pavao/Associated Press

This group includes Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), an awkward wiseacre who is only slightly more popular with his fellow students than Hunham is with his pupils. Angus is a constant thorn in the teacher’s side and tries everything in his power to go home. Unfortunately, he’s been abruptly uninvited from his mother’s trip to St. Kitts, leaving him a temporary ward of his least-favorite teacher.


Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, is also staying around for the holdover season. She took the job so that her son, Curtis, could attend Barton, which was the only way a working-class Black kid could afford it. After graduating, Curtis was killed in Vietnam — there were no easy college scholarships for people like him. In some ways, Mary is a holdover herself, tethered to a school haunted by her son’s memory.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph in a scene from "The Holdovers." Seacia Pavao/Associated Press

Thanks to a storyline involving a charitable parent whose helicopter picks up every student but Angus, “The Holdovers” is free to focus on its three leads. Since Mary and Hunham already have an easy rapport (they share a similar, world-weary cynicism that comes from different tragedies), David Hemingson’s screenplay aims to create a bond between teacher and student.

To achieve that, “The Holdovers” must break free of that stuffy school and branch out into the real world. Stops include a faculty party hosted by cheerful fellow teacher Miss Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), a bowling alley, and a hospital where Angus is treated for the gnarly injury only alluded to in the film’s trailer. (You will scream when you see it.)

Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti in a scene from "The Holdovers." Seacia Pavao/Associated Press

Bostonians will be happy to learn that the trio eventually work their way to the Somerville Theatre, Faneuil Hall, and Roxbury. There’s also mention of Hunham’s alma mater, Harvard. Among other locations, the film shot at Fairhaven High School and Franklin County’s Deerfield Academy.


Massachusetts plays itself well enough, but the real joy of “The Holdovers” is watching two pros and a newcomer deliver such beautiful, haunting performances. In his debut, Sessa makes Angus more than just a snarky outcast. He also lets you see the wounded, scared kid underneath the surface, one in dire need of acceptance but too afraid to seek it.

Dominic Sessa in a scene from "The Holdovers." Seacia Pavao/Associated Press

Giamatti continues the trend of broken men that’s par for the course in an Alexander Payne movie. Those roles have traditionally generated Oscar nods for the actors who’ve played them: See Bruce Dern in “Nebraska” (2013), Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt” (2002), and George Clooney in “The Descendants” (2011). So, perhaps Giamatti’s funny, complex work here will finally earn him the nod he should have received for his last collaboration with Payne, 2004′s “Sideways.”

I was relieved when I realized that “The Holdovers” wasn’t going to shortchange Randolph’s character. Mary Lamb has the film’s strongest arc, and her powerful work in the faculty party scene is such a showcase for the actor’s talent that you’ll be asking yourself how she pulled off this whirlwind of different emotions in so little time. Randolph is the movie’s heart and its MVP.

For a change, it doesn’t seem like Payne hates his characters, a criticism that’s been leveled at him numerous times (and, to be honest, isn’t always a detriment in his films).


Payne also scores points — at least with me — for really leaning into the 1970s aesthetic. He even gives us a grainy-looking film complete with a fake throwback movie logo for Focus Features and a re-creation of the old blue-and-white striped MPAA rating screen.

Perhaps the film’s biggest holdover is the ghost of Hal Ashby, who directed Jack Nicholson’s Navy lifer picture “The Last Detail.” There’s more than a little of that 1973 movie’s influence here, especially at the end. “The Holdovers” feels like a movie Ashby might have made.



Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by David Hemingson. Starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Andrew Garman, Carrie Preston. 133 min. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. Rated R (profanity, drugs — hey, it is 1970)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.