Payne bounces back from the disastrous “Downsizing” by reuniting with the star of arguably his most beloved film, “Sideways.” Paul Giamatti gets his richest part in years as Paul Hunham, a brutal professor at the prestigious Barton Academy in the early ‘70s. (Payne joked in his intro that he’s been basically making ‘70s comedies his whole career, so he figured he’d finally set a film then.) Hunham is generally disliked by students and staff, although a colleague named Lydia (Carrie Preston) does make the grumpy old man Christmas cookies. When Hunham isn’t handing out failing grades and assignments over Christmas break, he’s yelling at students for the slightest infractions. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t have much power in his life, so he uses it belligerently, leaving him few friends.
Every holiday break, a few kids have to stay over instead of going home, which requires a lonely man like Paul to keep an eye on them, even assigning schoolwork because that’s really all he knows to do. Through a series of events, the holdovers this break end up being pretty much just Paul, a student named Angus (Dominic Sessa in a breakout role), and the head cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). They’re three people at very distinct chapter breaks in their lives, but they will influence each other in a heartwarming and genuine way. David Hemingson’s script is about those wonderful turns in our lives when a stranger can shift us off in a new direction that we hadn’t considered and how they can come long after we think we’re done adjusting. It’s got some undeniable clichés, but Payne and his crew find a way to make the life lessons organic, refusing to build their dramedy on predictable plot twists. After all, this one is about the unpredictability of life.
If Hunham is the reluctant father figure of this trio, Mary is the mother, a grief-stricken woman who has just lost her son in the Vietnam War. Randolph is understated and moving, finding the weight of grief. It just seems harder for her to move through the world. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a kid, but I believe it would make a lot of days like quicksand. On the other side of the table, Angus is a 15-year-old with razor wit but the kind of aggression that comes with uncertainty. His parents don’t want him over the holidays. He’s not sure where he goes after Barton. It could even be to Vietnam. To say that he reaches out to Hunham for guidance would be an exaggeration, but these two initial enemies start to understand one another. Hunham is a man who starts to examine how he got here through the friendship of a young man examining where he’s going.