Not home for the holidays: ‘The Holdovers’ offers a funny, bittersweet Christmas story

Paul Giamatti plays a cantakerous prep school teacher with his own painful past in “The Holdovers.”

Paul Giamatti plays a cantakerous prep school teacher with his own painful past in “The Holdovers.” PHOTO BY SEACIA PAVAO/FOCUS FEATURES VIA AP

Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph share an unusual Christmas dinner in a scene from “The Holdovers.”

Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph share an unusual Christmas dinner in a scene from “The Holdovers.” PHOTO BY SEACIA PAVAO/FOCUS FEATURES VIA AP

Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls was closed for a time in March 2022 so film crews could shoot scenes for “The Holdovers.” Some scenes were also shot at Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, as well as locations in eastern Massachusetts.

Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls was closed for a time in March 2022 so film crews could shoot scenes for “The Holdovers.” Some scenes were also shot at Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, as well as locations in eastern Massachusetts. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti star as an unlikely Christmas trio in “The Holdovers.”

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti star as an unlikely Christmas trio in “The Holdovers.” PHOTO BY SEACIA PAVAO/FOCUS FEATURES VIA AP

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 12-16-2023 7:00 AM

Back in 2004, actor Paul Giamatti teamed up with screenwriter/director and Alexander Payne in “Sideways,” an offbeat comedy/drama about two friends who take a road trip through the California wine country as they both grapple with midlife crises of a sort.

The independent film was a huge critical hit, winning numerous awards and nominations, including an Academy Award for Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as a Golden Globe nomination and Independent Spirit Award for Giamatti.

“The Holdovers,” from Focus Features, reunites the two in another mix of comedy and drama — perhaps a bit more of the latter — that’s also generating lots of praise, as well as some Oscar buzz as a possible Best Picture and, for Giamatti, a nod as Best Actor.

That seems fitting, since it was through “Sideways” and another film he starred in at that time, 2003’s “American Splendor,” that Giamatti made the jump from successful character actor to leading man — if an unconventional one.

Giamatti is the heart and soul of “The Holdovers,” a bittersweet tale set mostly at a Massachusetts prep school, called Barton Academy, just before Christmas break in 1970. A handful of students who for various reasons can’t go home for the holiday break must spend the two weeks at the school under the supervision of Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a longtime professor of ancient civilizations.

Hunham, a 50-something bachelor, is a certified curmudgeon who seems to wear his orneriness with pride. He’s a caricature of a pompous academic as well, sporting a tweed jacket and bowtie, puffing on a pipe, and spouting phrases in Latin and ancient Greek, then offering the modern-day plebeians English translations: “Such are the vicissitudes of life.”

As the film opens, he’s seen marking test papers with a scowl and a shaking head, muttering “vulgar little philistines.” When he later hands those papers back to his students, almost all marked with failing grades or barely passing ones, he whistles a little tune, evidently enjoying himself.

One student, Teddy Kountze, looks with horror at his grade and says, “Sir, I don’t understand … I can’t fail this class.”

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“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze,” says Hunham. “I truly believe you can.”

“I’m supposed to go to Cornell,” pleads Kountze.

Hunham, raising his eyebrows as he stares back at Kountze, says, “Unlikely.”

Kountze is one of five students who are stuck at school with Hunham, who’s apparently drawn the assignment to oversee them as punishment for previously flunking the son of a senator, who transmitted his unhappiness to Barton’s headmaster (Andrew Garman).

Also on hand is the lonely and gangly Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose recently remarried mother informs him on the last day of term that he’ll have to stay there for Christmas because she and her new hubby are taking a trip of their own.

“The Holdovers” was filmed partly at Deerfield Academy, and Sessa was actually a senior at the school in 2022 when he won an audition for his role. He seems a natural: As Tully, he’s full of teen angst, anger, and awkwardness, but he’s also got a good nose for sniffing out adult BS, and he can match Hunham’s acerbity with his own.

The antipathy between the students and Hunham is genuine. He sees most of them as entitled brats, while they’re put off by his sarcasm and pomposity, his walleye and his strange body odor (he suffers from Trimethylaminuria, a rare metabolic disorder than causes him to smell like fish).

But that antipathy is mostly played for laughs, like when Hunham gives the boys one of his diktats and Tully responds, “And I thought all the Nazis were hiding in Argentina.”

Breaking down barriers

Through a comical bit that seems a bit of a plot device, four of the holdover students are whisked away after a few days for a skiing trip, leaving the moody Tully and sour Hunham to duke it out. But the movie then turns on the stepped-up role played by Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head cook of Barton, who’s also there for Xmas break.

On an almost all-white campus, Mary is a Black women who’s struggling with the death of her son, a former Barton student, in the Vietnam War. Her stoicism and her flashes of grief — there’s an unforgettable scene where she finally breaks down — helps draw out some humanity from Hunham, who takes to watching TV with her in the evening as they drink whiskey.

She advises him to “go easy” on the students given it’s the holidays. And when Hunham retorts, “Oh, please. They’ve had it easy their whole lives,” Lamb looks back at him and says, “You don’t know that. Do you? Besides, everyone should be with their people on Christmas.”

Slowly, the ice between Hunham and Tully begins to thaw, and, in between the comic bits, the two reveal a bit about their backgrounds — especially during a few days’ trip to Boston — enough to give each of them a look at the person behind the bluster and bitterness, and some beginnings of empathy for each another.

If on one hand Hunham declares that life for most people (including himself) is “like a hen house ladder — sh**tty and short,” he’s also able to show Tully why history so appeals to him, and how it’s relevant to the present.

In one of the film’s funniest scenes, after fending off questions from Tully about his sex life — or lack thereof — Hunham takes the teen to a Boston museum and shows him an ancient Greek or Roman artwork depicting a man and a woman copulating.

“Each generation thinks it invented debauchery, or suffering, or rebellion, but man’s every impulse and appetite, from the disgusting to the sublime, is on display right here,” says Hunham. “If you truly want to understand the present or yourself, you must begin in the past.”

“When you say it that way and throw in some pornography, it’s a lot easier to understand,” says Tully.

As the grouchy Hunham, Giamatti is outstanding, not just in tossing off his acid one-liners but in showing a more vulnerable, sadder side. Randolph, who’s also drawing some Oscar buzz, brings a quiet dignity and humanity to her role, while also firing off her share of wisecracks, and Sessa might have a real future in acting (he’s currently a student at Carnegie Mellon University).

And Payne, as the director — “The Holdovers” was written by David Hemingson — shows a deep regard for his characters after sometimes being accused, if unfairly, of looking down on the characters in some of his other films such as “Nebraska” and “Election.”

Is “The Holdovers” a little predictable? Alienated characters with little in common are unexpectedly thrown together, then somehow discover shared ground and understanding?

Maybe so, but their journey to that point is an enjoyable one, and the film offers enough revelations, as well as an unusual ending, to make it all hold together.

One added bonus: Valley residents with sharp eyes may also catch a glimpse of some familiar landscapes, as filming locales for “The Holdovers” included not just Deerfield Academy but the Northfield Mount Hermon School and Shelburne Falls. See how many you can pick out.

“The Holdovers” is playing at least through Dec. 21 at Amherst Cinema and through Dec. 20 at Garden Cinemas in Greenfield and Cinemark in Hadley.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.