Film Review of the Week


The Holdovers (15)

Review: “Sex is 99% friction and 1% goodwill,” explains a teacher to one of his pupils in director Alexander Payne’s delightful coming-of-middle-age comedy drama, which reunites the filmmaker with actor Paul Giamatti 20 years after they made Sideways in the rolling vineyards of California. A 1970s working-class New England town blanketed by Christmastime snow provides the picturesque setting for The Holdovers, a vibrant portrait of schooldays angst in the vein of Dead Poets Society, scripted with artful precision and an occasional sentimental flourish by David Hemingson.

Laughs are bountiful, whether it be the same teacher warning the pupil about his disruptive conduct (“You are careening toward a suspension!”) or the teenager’s tense response to the threat of detention (“I thought all the Nazis were hiding in Argentina”). Giamatti is magnificent as the irascible and universally disliked scholar in dire need of a re-education in how to connect positively to his wards, while Dominic Sessa makes a sensational debut as the 17-year-old outcast who is terrified of becoming his father. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is equally commanding as the school’s head cook, who is holding back a tidal wave of grief after the recent death of her son in Vietnam. The emotional dam bursts on screen with two simple words: “He’s gone”. She should pen an Oscars acceptance speech.

Classics teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti) doesn’t tolerate mediocrity from his students at Barton Academy boarding school – or “lazy, vulgar, rancid little Philistines”, as he calls them while marking exam papers. He is a stickler for rules and incurs the wrath of headmaster Dr Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman) by failing the son of a powerful senator. As punishment, Woodrup selects Paul to remain on campus over Christmas to chaperone the boys who won’t be travelling home for the holidays.

The teenage reprobates include star quarterback Jason Smith (Michael Provost), Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner), Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley), Korean international student Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan) and Angus Tully (Sessa), whose vacation in St Kitts with his mother (Gillian Vigman) is cancelled at the last minute. Head cook Mary Lamb (Joy Randolph) also remains behind at Barton. Fate conspires to reduce the Yuletide stragglers to Paul, Mary and Angus, which the boy succinctly describes as “two losers and a grieving mom”, and the unholy trinity thaws out common ground in snow-laden seclusion.

The Holdovers is a bittersweet lesson in compassion, discomfort and joy, anchored to three powerhouse performances working in harmony. Groovy production design and Payne’s unfussy direction complement the natural ebb and flow of Hemingson’s script. The denouement plucks the most obvious heartstring but a lazy, vulgar, rancid little Philistine like me loves an emotional pay-off that leaves a lump in the throat. In that respect, Payne’s picture is a high achiever.

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Mean Girls (12A)

Review: In 2004, wickedly mean-spirited comedy Mean Girls joined Heathers and Clueless in the top class of riotous schooldays celebrations. The Tina Fey-scripted romp has sustained its standing as a cultural phenomenon, inspiring an award-winning musical (also written by Fey), which premiered on Broadway in 2018 and moved with the times to de-weaponise homophobia in the teenage playbook of psychological warfare. An exuberant film version retains Fey as screenwriter and sensibly cuts and pastes some of the most quotable lines from the corridors and classrooms of North Shore High School.

Unapologetically out and proud student Damian Hubbard, who is “too gay to function” even in 2024, still introduces gossip-mongering Plastics member Gretchen Wieners with the zinging one-liner “That’s why her hair is so big, it’s full of secrets!”, and dating ex-boyfriends remains firmly off-limits because “that’s just, like, the rules of feminism”. And yes, Gretchen is unwavering in her determination to make “fetch” happen as a superlative in the modern teen vocabulary. “It’s, like, slang from an old movie,” she professes. “Juno, I think.” A glorious cameo, reserved for the Mathletes state championship showdown, is worth the wait.

The toe-tapping songbook featuring music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin has been harshly edited, removing two of Damian’s stand-out moments (Where Do You Belong?, Stop) as well as the romantic duet Stupid With Love. A new ditty, What If?, is a disappointingly subdued substitute for Cady Heron’s introductory number It Roars. The inconsistent direction of wife-husband team Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr, making their feature film debuts, is a stumbling block to making fetch happen on the big screen. They energise some musical numbers and suck the oxygen out of others, drawing attention away from the characters with the camera’s movement.

North Shore High School duo Janis Sarkisian (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey) narrate the cautionary tale of 15-year-old Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), who moves back to America from Kenya with her mother (Jenna Fischer). Janis encourages Cady to infiltrate the ranks of The Plastics ruled by the formidable Regina George (Renee Rapp), who is fully aware of the grip she exerts over classmates (“This whole school humps my leg like a chihuahua”). Cady spends time with Regina and chumettes Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and Karen (Avantika) but The Plastics’ pretty poison gradually corrupts the new girl.

Mean Girls moves with the times from 2004 to fixate on the pivotal role played by social media in teenage lives, but for the most part, Jayne and Perez Jr’s picture dims next to the original. Rapp reprises Regina from Broadway and is a supernova of seduction while Cravalho and Spivey devour their scenes with belting voices and sass, repeatedly overpowering Rice. Sadly, the third time for Fey’s empowerment anthem isn’t a charm.

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