November 3, 2023 – Candy canes, Christmas trees, gifts, parties and trips to family gatherings, are seasoned with emotional pain and misanthropy in this bittersweet movie about people stuck with each other over the holidays.
A hated teacher, a hated student and a mournful cook find themselves stranded together over the holidays at a private boarding school, Barton Academy, in late 1960s New England during the Vietnam War. What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything is what, but things also go unexpectedly right in this adult version of “The Breakfast Club.”
Misanthropic teacher Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti of “Sideways”) agrees to supervise several students who are unable to go home for the holidays. Hunham is disliked by his students, the faculty and by Headmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrip (played by Andrew Garman of The Sisterhood of Night”) who is a former student of Hunham.
Hunham, and the head cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph of “The Lost City”) both live on the Barton campus. The chief troublemaker among the holdover students is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) who has been kicked out of so many boarding schools, his next likely stop is a military academy. He is a liar, a thief, and is adept at starting fights. Circumstances force these three to get along.
Hunham carries a dark secret from his past, while Lamb is mourning the loss of her son, a soldier who was killed in Vietnam. Both Hunham and Lamb have little sympathy for the trials of privileged Barton students who have never experienced real hardship, and who will not have to serve in Vietnam because of student deferments.
Angus Tully is angry because his planned Caribbean vacation is suddenly called off because of his mother and stepfather suddenly schedule a honeymoon trip that conflicts with his scheduled trip. He finds himself stranded with Hunham and Lamb for the holidays, but as the three begin to get along, there are impromptu trips to a local party, and later to Boston.
Gradually, the lies and secrets of both Tully and Hunham are revealed during these trips. Hunham and Tully form a bond that eventually leads Hunham to make an unexpected sacrifice on behalf of Tully. It turns out that Hunham has a heart after all, and he is more of a curmudgeon than a misanthrope. His final act of defiance at Barton is pretty funny.
The performances by these three lead actors are all superb, and they had to be in order for this movie to work with such a small cast. The supporting actors are also good, including the other students not mentioned here and a mentally impaired member of Tully's family, played by Stephen Thorne of “Don't Look Up.”
Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways” and “Nebraska”) deserves a lot of the credit for this excellent movie, as well as screenwriter David Hemingson. This film rates an A.
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