Dir: Alexander Payne | Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph | US Comedy 133′
Paul Giamatti is the reason to watch this bittersweet comedy satire from Alexander Payne – his best since Nebraska in 2013. This time written by David Hemingson the film is already set to be a critics’ favourite for its witty acerbic observations of school life, along the lines of the Dead Poets Society back in 1989.
Giamatti is Paul, a disenchanted history professor in a private boarding school in 1970s snowbound New England where he is one of three characters forced to stay over for the holidays with nowhere else to go.
The boys are a privileged and self-entitled lot but Paul digs his heals in academically and discipline-wise in a darkly humorous drama that morphs into the ultimate buddy movie about a man who makes a sacrifice for the good of another. Hemingson’s pithy script is strewn with Latin and Greek truisms and mottos and Paul is constantly quoting them with a twinkle in his eye (“it’s the left one you have to look at”): the most appropriate here is from Cicero “Non obis solum” which apparently means: “not for ourselves alone are we born”.
Giamatti is at his best when playing these kind of philosophical roles: a disappointed disciplinarian determined to make the best of things while maintaining his strict code of conduct. And we feel for him in his attempts to remain in control and at a distance while fully aware of the potential glumness of the situation for Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a bright but awkward teenager whose mother has last-minute romantic plans for the Christmas break that don’t involve her son. Making up the motley threesome in the echoing boarding school corridors is bereaved cafeteria manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who son has recently been killed in Vietnam.
Paul – who suffers various ailments – wants nothing more than to be left alone to enjoy his break buried mystery novels and nice things to eat. Instead he is forced to contend with a complex emotional triangle which will play out in fraught but surprising ways: Not unlike the average Christmas for most families then.
Payne imbues this all with a bittersweet understanding of the issues involved. Mary is sensitively played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as she bitterly reflects on her son’s death, but always with warmth and never overdoing the sentimentality. All three interact convincingly without a shred of self-pity or rancour given the situation they find themselves in, and the warmth that Giamatti gradually brings to bear on his ‘odd couple’ dynamic with his pupil Angus – who has his own tragic secret – is well-judged and subtle. Sessa manages to be cynical and vulnerable in his thoughtful feature debut. The best thing about Winter Break is that Payne never opts for trite solutions or one-dimensional characters with Paul, Angus or Mary.
With its far-reaching themes Winter Break (aka The Holdovers) is possibly the most apposite Christmas film of this season with its simple Christian message. It’s a film that works for any season, for that matter, with its wry humour and melancholy nostalgia – and not too much tinsel to make it watchable well into the New Year. @MeredithTaylor
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN ANY MOTION PICTURE | DA’VINE JOY RANDOLPH | BEST PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – MUSICAL/COMEDY PAUL GIAMATTI | 81st GOLDEN GLOBES 2024
BEST MALE ACTOR IN A MUSICAL/COMEDY 81st GOLDEN GLOBES – PAUL GIAMATTI