The top Christmas movie of the year has finally made its way to the UK, albeit a bit delayed. It’s a heartwarming and hopeful dramedy by Alexander Payne that expertly captures a mix of happiness and sadness. The screenplay, written by TV writer David Hemingson, skillfully reveals characters and moves the plot forward in a subtle and gradual manner. Set in 1970, the film purposely resembles the movies that the characters would have watched at the time, with clever and bittersweet dialogue reminiscent of Hal Ashby or Bob Rafelson’s works, and a nostalgic soundtrack featuring artists like Cat Stevens and Labi Siffre.
However, it also bears resemblance to a typical Alexander Payne film, featuring themes of generational clashes, a road trip that evokes sadness, an unlikely pair, and the not-so-private struggles of a humiliated schoolteacher. Paul Giamatti portrays Mr. Hunham, a grumpy teacher of classical literature at a boys’ boarding school in New England, where he was once a student. He is known as “Wall-Eye” due to his lazy eye and is strict when it comes to discipline and academic standards. He remains unmarried and resides at the school. The film poignantly reveals how he is stuck in a state of perpetual bachelorhood, much like his students, but with a sense of desolation and disillusionment that is much more advanced. Similar to Giamatti’s character in Payne’s Sideways, Hunham is a drinker, although he does not try to pass himself off as an expert. Like the teachers portrayed by Matthew Broderick in Payne’s Election and Reese Witherspoon in the upcoming sequel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Hunham has learned to cope with disappointment and frustration as part of the job.
Hunham is disliked by most people, particularly Dr Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman), who is very angry with him for giving a failing grade to one of the wealthiest students and insisting on legitimate academic performance. This has ruined the spoiled and entitled student’s chances of getting into an Ivy League school and receiving further donations from his wealthy father. In retaliation, Dr Woodrup forces Hunham to take care of the “holdovers” – students who cannot go home for Christmas break. Among them is an irate and self-deprecating boy named Angus, portrayed by the exceptionally gifted newcomer Dominic Sessa.
Miss Lamb, the school’s cook and a woman of color, is a dominant figure in the eerily empty school. She is brilliantly portrayed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who, like Paul Giamatti, has won a Golden Globe for her performance. Along with the male staff, Miss Lamb is stranded at the school during Christmas. She is struggling to hide her sadness and pain over the death of her son, who was a former student on a scholarship connected to her job. He was killed while serving in the Vietnam War – the very same military service that the white students are trying to avoid by getting prestigious college placements.
The concepts of race, class, and toxic masculinity are crucial in this situation, serving as a poignant reminder of the significance they held during the Vietnam War. Unlike the more recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where recruitment was voluntary, the United States had a mandatory draft system. Education played a central role in how individuals could avoid being drafted unfairly, making it a matter of life and death.
Audiences will eagerly anticipate the development of a close relationship between the grumpy Mr. Hunham and angry Angus, both of whom are lonely and lack family support. As they see glimpses of themselves at different stages of life, it is not surprising that they eventually achieve a breakthrough in intimacy. However, this is executed with cleverness, sophistication, and clever storytelling. One could argue that Miss Lamb’s story takes a backseat to this central dynamic, but her performance is superb and Payne and Hemingson allow her character room to grow, particularly in the scene where she reunites with her sister.
Has Payne ever delivered a more powerful punch before? Perhaps. However, the empathy, richness, and tenderness captured in this image are still extraordinary: a mature drama for intellectual individuals. It is worth considering why a story like this must be set in the past. Could it be adapted to a school in 2024? I pondered this while watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, wondering if the 70s era frees the filmmaker from being weighed down by today’s world of identity politics and the loud demands of current issues, while creating a paradoxical setting that is untouched by political and social guilt.
However, Giamatti possesses a truly remarkable skill. It is enjoyable to watch him take on a leading role in a movie, a rarity in recent times. His prominent role in this excellent film hints at a possible return to a more relatable world of real drama and genuine talent in cinema.