Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Holdovers

This past Sunday, the local movie theater offered me the choice of Disney's Wish, DreamWorks Animation's Trolls Band Together or the latest installment in the Hunger Games franchise, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I said "no thanks" to all of them and, instead, drove a couple hours round trip to see The Holdovers, instead.

Don't get me wrong. Fun, animated movies and film adaptations of YA fantasy franchises are right in my wheelhouse. But I've never had any exposure to the Hunger Games books or movies, and based on what I know about them, I don't care for the concept. I've never watched a Trolls movie (I believe the current film is the third). And Disney has been failing to deliver anything I'm interested in for a while. So, it was the positive buzz about the quality of Alexander Payne's (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) movie that grabbed me, despite the fact that I hated his previous movie, Downsizing.

Leading the cast is Paul Giamatti, who has starred in a couple of Payne's movies before; I've read that he was originally intended for Matt Damon's role in Downsizing, which might have made an interesting difference. Giamatti plays an ancient civilizations teacher at his old, private, all-boys high school, who is hated by the students (who call him Walleye) and not particularly loved by his colleagues. He lives a solitary life, grades his students strictly on their merits and has a low-key grudge against entitled rich kids, which maybe is a sign he has chosen the wrong career; however, you learn as the movie progresses how he got there. As Christmas 1970 approaches, he lands the assignment of babysitting the "holdovers," the kids who are stuck on campus over the holidays. He doesn't take it very well.

At first there are five holdovers, but most of them helicopter off to a ski holiday only a few days into the break, leaving Giamatti and the school's head cook (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) along with the most cross-grained, attitude-challenged kid of all, played by Dominic Sessa in what I believe to be his movie debut. There are other people in the cast, to be sure, including Tate Donovan and Gillian Vigman (Dr. T'Ana in Star Trek: Lower Decks) as the kid's mom and stepdad. (I take it a couple of the older boys are among the teen heartthrobs of the current moment.) But these three pretty much carry the movie, becoming an unlikely family (for just a bit) and supporting each other through their concurrent rough patches.

The boy, Angus, has been pretty much given up on by his folks. He claims his father is dead, but there's a bigger story to that and it ends up changing Paul, the teacher's, life. Meanwhile, Paul has a backstory that explains a lot about his classroom douchebaggery, that he reluctantly reveals to the kid. As for Mary, the cook, she's heavily mourning her barely-grown-up son, who received a Barton Academy education as a staff member's son, but couldn't afford to go to college. So, he ended up shipping out to Vietnam, and you can guess the rest. The friction between these mismatched characters ensures that as they grow on each other, it's an interesting process to watch. And when the final crisis comes (hint: you're going to hate Angus's parents), the movie delivers a moving catharsis and a bittersweet yet fulfilling ending.

There was one scene that I had a bit of trouble understanding. Late in the movie, it depicts a hunky teenager getting out of the shower and checking himself out in the mirror, and I'm like, "Who even is that?" I almost didn't recognize the school quarterback, last seen in the helicopter scene, and that's when it hit me that his new haircut was the point of the shot – a quick, dialogue-free jab of storytelling that requires the audience to keep track of plot threads that haven't been touched in the past 100 minutes. Kind of like when Arwen shows up to marry Aragorn at the end of The Lord of the Rings and I, on my first time reading the book, go "Who?" Clearly, Payne has high expectations for his audience.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Definitely the scene in which Paul takes Angus to visit where his father is, erm, buried. The consequences are emotionally stirring, both short- and long-range. (2) Mary's meltdown in the kitchen at the school secretary's Christmas party. There isn't an actor in this trio who shouldn't be collecting trophies this award season. (3) When the kid lies to a hospital nurse to protect Paul from the consequences, after he dislocates his shoulder during a foolish act of defiance.

I want to add that I'm pretty pleased with the look of this film, which takes place about one year before I was even a gleam in my parents' eyes but still evokes memories of my early childhood. You know how it is? I recently walked into a roomful of kitsch at an antique shop and was hit by a smell that made me think, "Whoa, that's the 1970s." This movie's interiors, exteriors and street scenes enfold the viewer in a palpable embrace of 1970-71, with a strong accent of My Old School, even if you didn't have an old school. It's a sense of time and place that cuts through strongly at every point. And there are many points in it that linger in your thoughts afterward.

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