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Holdovers, The


Stars: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Andrew Garman, Tate Donovan

Director: Alexander Payne

Despite its peppering of bad language, this is a sweet, winning and perceptive film that will get to you all the more as it goes on.

Goggle-eyed Giamatti gives one of the performances of the year as Paul Hunham, a classics teacher at Barton, a posh boys' boarding school in 1971 New England. Here, the sons of the rich expect to go on Harvard, Cornell or Yale, to the extent that their teachers, irrespective of their pupils' inattention in class, will give them sufficient grades to get there.

Not so Paul, whose head is in the clouds when it's not full of Greek and Latin maxims and quotations. Thrown out of Harvard through no fault of his own, he owes his job to the hated headteacher (Garman), 'a pompous ass with a dictator complex', who punishes Paul for not supplying the requisite pass marks by ordering him to stay at the school over Christmas to supervise the boys whose parents are unable (usually because they are out of the country) to have them at home.

'Don't cry,' one boy mocks a young Korean who has to stay. 'The head'll crucify you, which is ironic considering you're a Buddhist'.

Then a swish helicopter flies in to whisk four of the five 'holdovers' away, and Paul is left with the queen-size cook (Randolph), whose son died in Vietnam following his studies at Barton, the janitor, and the bolshiest of the privileged 17-year-olds, Angus (Sessa).

Much stress and shouting ensues, but then, at a chance encounter in a nearby cafe, Miss Crane (Preston), another teacher, invites them to her Christmas Eve 'do'. From then on, master and pupil begin to find out things about each other, Angus's father being put away in a psychiatric hospice after early onset dementia, plus Paul's Harvard expulsion and ambitions to write a book, Light and Magic, on the classics.

Still an edgy relationship, it results in Paul driving Angus on a forbidden visit to see his father and them both facing the music on their return.

Warm-hearted and immaculately written, plotted and performed, here's a film that strikes all the right notes. Giamatti, brilliantly portraying a resentful and very private man, and Randolph will probably be nominated for Academy Awards, and rightly so.

David Quinlan

USA 2023. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour by Harbor.
133 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 1, Swearing 2.

Review date: 16 Jan 2024