The first thing to say about Alexander Payne’s latest, The Holdovers, is that it’s not so much an inspirational teacher film as an uninspirational teacher film. You should know that before attending the cinema otherwise you might sit throughout in the brace position, fearing it could go all Dead Poets Society at any moment. It doesn’t. No one plunders Tennyson for motivational slogans even once. Instead, it feels sincere, heartfelt, true. You may even come away wishing you’d had an uninspirational teacher when you were at school.
The year is 1970 and it’s filmed as if it had been made in 1970 with static on the soundtrack, desaturated colours and retro titles. The setting is Barton Academy, a New England boarding school for posh boys, where Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) has been (uninspiringly) teaching ancient history since forever. He is not charismatic. He is acerbic and bitter. He despises his students, who are rich, entitled ‘troglodytes’ and is exhausted by their mediocracy. They despise him in return.
Physically, he hasn’t lucked out either, as he has a lazy eye and suffers from Trimethylaminuria so smells fishy. (No mention of coffee breath but if I had to bet?) Anyway, as punishment for refusing to bump up the grades of the son of a major donor he is forced to supervise the ‘holdovers’ – the children with nowhere else to go during the Christmas holidays. Eventually there are just three of them left in the vast, wood-panelled 18th-century school: Hunham, an angry, unpredictable, rebellious teenager called Angus (Dominic Sessa) and Mary, the school cook. Mary is played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph and if she doesn’t win every award going, I swear to God…
They are each bereft.