- Alexander Payne
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 13 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
The rich think highly
but anyone poor and sensible
sees right through them.
I have written before of my love for the caring-teacher genre of films—although director Alexander Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson’s new film may not seem to fit in because Paul Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is perhaps the snarkiest teacher to be seen in such a film. There would be no “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” from any student who suffered through his ancient history classes.
It is 1970, and Paul teaches at Barton Academy, a prep school in New England. Early on in the film he is handing back to his students their final exams. Mostly marked D’s and F’s, he derides the students, calling them “reprobates” and “vulgar little Philistines.” He resents them for their wealthy families that give them a sense of entitlement and their lack of interest in education. Everything is easily within their reach, but they show no appreciation for their privileged status. He does give one of them a B+, but this student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is just as repellant to him as he others. Along with his insults, Paul gives his class an assignment to work on over the holiday.
Paul feels just as much contempt for the other teachers and the headmaster (Andrew Garman) whom he regards as corrupt. The latter punishes Paul for flunking the son of wealthy parents by appointing him to watch over the four or five “holdovers” during the two-week Christmas break. For various reasons they cannot go home, and Paul has no family. Angus is among the students, and in addition to Paul is kitchen manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Angus feels especially down because he had expected to vacation with his mother in St. Kitt, but then she had suddenly married her boyfriend. Three’s a crowd on a honeymoon, so the resentful Angus feels abandoned. Soon, however, all the boys but Angus, are whisked away by parents with changed plans, who invite their son’s friends as well. Angus is left behind because his mother cannot be reached for permission for him to leave the campus. The lucky students are evacuated from the campus, not by a limousine or small bus, but by a helicopter! Talk about wealth and privilge!
Of course, any of you who have watched one of the zillion, so-called “Christmas” shows will know the basic outline of the story that follows—the three will bond and be changed for the better by the time the vacation period ends, leaving one and all with a warm feeling. The enjoyment is watching how this happens, and in this case we have three excellent actors that fill the screen with warmth and liveliness. Mary is the most sympathetic of the threesome, this being her first Christmas without her only son. A scholarship student at Barton, he had been drafted into the Army shortly after graduation. Sent to Vietnam, he lost his life in that far off country. She is still wrestling with her grief, so she had declined an invitation to spend Christmas with family. Whenever she shows up in a scene, there is a warmth you can feel—she is th one person at Barton whom Hunham likes and respects.
The two males spend some time in Boston where Tully’s father has been living in a mental institution. This off-campus trip is against the rules, but after a series of confrontations, both teacher and student are starting to mellow toward one another. Both we and Angus discover facts of Paul’s past experience, including a troubling event when he was a student at Harvard, that help us understand a little better his jaded attitude. And when the semester resumes and Paul is in trouble with the headmaster (Andrew Garman) for taking Angus to see his father, Paul does something uncharacteristic that might remind you of Dead Poet’s Society. The final parting of teacher and student is a warm, memorable event. Each has contributed to the freeing up of the other—the student to using us considerable intellect to become educated instead of fruitless rebelling, and the teacher to breaking through his shell of cynicism and disdain for others.
This is the seventh Alexander Payne that I have reviewed, all of them as I recall, favorably because of his concern to bring out the humanity of his characters. At the time that his break-through film Sideway was released, he said, “I want all of my films to belong to me. There is an audience out there for literate films – slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made.” Thus, he has always insisted on controlling all aspects of his movies, “from scripts to casts. He has brought back from his 2004 film one of the actors who made it so memorable, Paul Giamatti, who serves this film equally well. Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa are equally good. This film is set in the Christmas season, but it is not really one of those “Christmas Films” that attempt to show “the reason for the season.” Rather, it is the story of the inward journey of two very flawed persons who have much to offer the world that they have held at bay and disdained.
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