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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Alexander Payne
scr David Hemingson
prd Mark Johnson, Bill Block, David Hemingson
with Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Andrew Garman, Naheem Garcia, Stephen Thorne, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Darby Lee-Stack
release US 27.Oct.23,
23/US Focus 2h13
TORONTO FILM FEST
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Impeccably recreating the vibe of early 1970s cinema, this warm comedy uses sharp writing and character-based humour to dig into themes of identity and legacy. The script cleverly isolates three very different people together, then through a series of amusingly pointed mini-adventures coaxes them into examining themselves and making some changes. The dialog keeps us laughing, even as the underlying emotional realities hit us with surprising resonance.
It's Christmas 1970 at an elite New England boys' prep school, and history teacher Paul (Giamatti) has angered his boss (Garman) for failing a major donor's son, so he's assigned to stay over the holidays to babysit kids who can't go home. And a series of circumstances leaves Paul with only 17-year-old rebel Angus (Sessa) plus the school's cook Mary (Randolph), whose son recently died in Vietnam. Paul wants to enforce strict discipline, but the fiercely intelligent Tully outfoxes him. And all three struggle to admit that they might be in need of Christmas cheer.
With a retro style, director Payne cleverly evokes the tone of films like The Graduate using grainy film and thoughtful songs (plus a direct nod to another Dustin Hoffman movie). And the story is conveyed with complexity through sparky characters and whip-smart dialog. Even actors in smaller roles get to create a fully formed person with wonderful quirks and implications. And the wintry setting adds to the tone, while the narrative gets deeper under the skin with each scene, leading to a series of encounters that bristle with acute emotions.
Giamatti's hangdog persona is perfect for Paul, a brilliant man crippled by his insecurities. It's a terrific performance, big but never over-the-top as Paul fails repeatedly to put up with the idiots he encounters. And his tetchy reactions are intensely provoked by the privileged. The terrific Sessa finds his own resilience as Angus, delivering wonderfully barbed comebacks to Paul's diatribes ("And I thought all the Nazis were hiding in Argentina"). Meanwhile, Randolph's earthy presence gives the film a lovely soulfulness.
With its knowing humour, this story is essentially a beautifully textured exploration of the bravado people display to cover up their inner pain. These three people are in the grip of depression for various reasons, and Paul emerges as the one who has allowed it to stunt his whole life. As Mary tells him, "You can't even dream a whole dream." So the film becomes an exploration of the healing that comes from sharing yourself with others.
R E A D E R R E V I E W SStill waiting for your comments ... don't be shy.
© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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