By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
(***) This gathering of three lost souls, pushed together by circumstance and location, takes a bit of time to weave its sardonic magic. But it gets there.
In 1970 New England, Barton is an elitist all-boys, live-in, private high school. Over winter break, some kids aren’t going home. They’re the “holdovers.”
The most unpopular and rigid professor at the school, Hunham (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), is drafted into being the kids’ caretaker. Unfortunately for him, the most rebellious and disrespectful student in the school, 15-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa), becomes the last teenager standing after the others leave.
Angus knows how to press the professor’s buttons, with mischief and smart-aleck answers. Hunham: “You just earned yourself a big detention.”
Angus: “Being with you is already one big detention.”
Fortunately, that brat’s malicious behavior is counterbalanced by the calming presence of Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cafeteria’s manager, who coaches Hunham.
“You don’t tell a boy that’s been left behind at Christmas that nobody wants him.”
Can they all just get along?
Eigil Bryld’s (“In Bruges”) grainy cinematography and Ryan Warren Smith’s (“True Detective”) sparse set design makes New England winters look as cold, uninviting and melancholic as they actually are.
David Hemingson’s very simple script creates indelible characters, an evocative setting and a wry comic/drama tone.
Nothing in the film feels rushed (editor Kevin Tent, “Sideways”). The dialogue and storyline take their time revealing what past trauma is behind each character’s façade.
As all is revealed about this newly formed surrogate family, the three become disarming then charming.
The terse, funny dialogue, which softens into confessions, helps.
Like an old sage narrator, not willing to show his cards too early, director Alexander Payne (Sideways) takes his own sweet time. The student, professor and manager need help. Yet, all they have is each other. Finding out if they can turn their holiday break into a healing process becomes a long, usually compelling 133-minute journey.
Interactions between Giamatti and Sessa evolve from teacher/student to warden/prisoner, to driver/passenger, to uncle/nephew and finally savior/survivor. Randolph as Mary is the godmother and referee who makes sense when the others don’t.
The pain this mom carries from the death of her son is etched on Randolph’s face. Yet the actor also finds ways to show her enduring spirit.
Each actor gets to the heart of their character in due time. Wait for it.
A heart-warming winter’s tale that should be savored, just like a sip of cognac by a fire on a cold snowy night.
For more information about the Toronto International Film Festival go to https://tiff.net/. Visit Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.