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Oscar Musings – The Holdovers

The Holdovers is a humanistic campus drama, centring on an unlikely bond between a grumpy teacher and a confused teenager, writes Srivathsan Nadadhur

A viewing of an obscure, 90-year-old French film – Marcel Pagnol’s Merlusse at a film festival inspired director Alexander Payne to come up with his own version of boarding school horrors. He called his old acquaintance, screenwriter David Heminson and asked him to reinterpret the idea while retaining the essence of the original, sowing the seed for their collaboration The Holdovers.

The Holdovers has a terrific one-liner of an idea – a grumpy, old-school teacher needs to put up with five students during a Christmas break at a boarding school. Despite their awkward equation, they need to tolerate one another for a fortnight. With a smart narrative device, the tale, over time, limits its scope to a classics teacher, a confused teenager, a cafeteria manager and their unlikely bond.

All the characters – Paul Hunham, Angus Tully, Mary Lamb – despite their contrasts, experience a similar state of homelessness. An ageing Paul hasn’t seen life beyond the Barton Academy for years, he lost his mother early and is disliked by his peers, students and superiors. Angus opines he’s unwanted by his family, is distanced from his father and denied a Christmas holiday by his newlywed mom.

Mary uses work as a distraction to come to terms with the loss of her young son Curtis, killed recently in the Vietnam War. Beyond the obviousness of the premise, The Holdovers is a humanistic exploration of masculinity at different ends of the spectrum. Paul and Angus are ultimately friendless, sensitive men, who react unpredictably, mean well and yet struggle to express themselves.

A wonky-eyed Paul, a stickler for tradition, tries hard not to be nasty. Angus doesn’t make it easy for Paul either with his rebellion and says he smells like fish. Paul could’ve gotten by those two weeks reading a novel at his bed but he’s now in charge of a restless Angus, who’s doing his best to not miss home. Mary even tells Paul – ‘you better not be nasty with a kid who’s not at home for Christmas.’

In humanistic dramas, where multiple characters forge a camaraderie in an unexpected circumstance, a filmmaker must make a viewer empathise with his world and not make the proceedings look syrupy and preachy. The story isn’t only about Paul helping a teenager navigate a tricky phase in his life but is also of a student who reminds an oldie to take it easy and have some fun.

In a tale about an old teacher and a young student, Mary serves as the ice-breaker with an uncanny sense of humour. Beyond their initial awkwardness, they enjoy a calm dinner on Christmas. Angus pokes fun at Paul’s inability to strike a conversation with women, enjoys his dinner, the latter gifts a book and a beer to him and Mary and they’ve a hearty laugh.

Suddenly, Paul is okay to break rules, agreeing to take Mary and Angus out in the guise of an educational trip. While Mary spends time with her pregnant sister, Angus and Paul are left to each other to deal with their inner demons, conflicted growing-up years and deepest secrets (that explains their not-so-usual behaviour and choices).

By the end of The Holdovers, Angus is readier to embrace life, Paul is a gentler human, surprises his wards by re-channelising his long-lost sense of humour and Mary gets a well-deserved break before returning to normalcy. Yet, some things don’t change too. When Angus waves goodbye to Paul, he’s teary-eyed and still resists giving his teacher a warm ‘thank you’ hug.

The Holdovers is a throwback to an era of simple, feel-good films that Hollywood barely produces anymore. Set in late 1970, the nostalgia factor helps you look at the film with more fondness, where humans had to rely on one another sans many entertainment avenues or technological distractions. The cheery soundtrack, the warm colour palette and conversational writing come together like a dream.

The acting styles of its leads too are quite contrasting. Paul Giamatti, with whom Alexander Payne worked for Sideways, approaches his role with a readiness and a method you expect from a seasoned artiste, the debutant Dominic Sessa is a breath of fresh air with his uninhibited, instinctive portrayal that adds another layer of vulnerability to his performance.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph is asked to play a grieving mum with a hint of sarcasm, but she makes it all the more memorable with her exquisite timing as a performer, being empathetic and wacky at once. There are fine cameos from Carrie Preston (Paul’s one-time romantic interest), Brady Hepner (as the privileged kid), Andrew Garman and Naheem Garcia.

In a nutshell, The Holdovers is sugar, spice and everything nice.

(Nominated across five categories in the Oscars – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, The Holdovers is playing at the theatres)

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