In 1970, Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is a cranky, fifty-something bachelor who teaches history at Barton, an old New England prep school. As the Christmas holiday nears, he’s assigned to chaperone those boarders who need to stay at the school over the holidays. Beyond a handful of students, cafeteria head Mary Lamb (Randolph) also remains on campus, mourning the recent death of her son in Vietnam. Angus Tully (Sessa) is one of the unlucky “holdovers”; his family life seems just as shaky as his academic performance. Thrown together over the break, Hunham and Tully discover they may have something to teach each other.
Director Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) delivers yet another smart, compelling human drama. Shooting at several boarding schools near Boston, the film evokes a particular time and tradition, where young men from affluent families experience heavy doses of routine and discipline before heading off to college. Giamatti is ideally cast as a man whose sour cynicism masks a profound loneliness, while newcomer Sessa is a revelation, playing a bright kid who has yet to find his footing. Randolph’s Mary adds a salty, no-nonsense quality to the mix- a strong woman with no illusions or artifice, grieving her son. With “The Holdovers,” you won’t mind staying after school lets out.