COMIC DRAMA; 2hr 13min
STARRING: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
Triple effect: from left, Sessa, Randolph and Giamatti
Ancient history teacher and lifetime loner Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is a bristly stickler for discipline no matter what the cost, either to his reputation on campus or the resentful prep-school boys doing time in his New England classroom. If life were a popularity contest, Professor Paul would never make any grade, which is why he is the worst possible person to babysit five lame ducks forced to stay on at school for their 1970 Christmas vacation.
When four of the five are reprieved at the last minute, bad is a springboard to worse for disruptive 15-year-old square-peg Angus Tully (Sessa), stuck in the snowbound chill with fusspot Paul and head cook Mary Lamb (Randolph), who is grieving her soldier son killed in Vietnam. From this wildly inauspicious onset, the paradoxical trio will plot a haphazard course through the proving ground of a togetherness that none of them would contemplate signing up for, yet that each of them urgently needs.
It may be a foreign country for his at-a-loss characters but intimacy is home turf for Sideways director Alexander Payne, whose affinity for the disenfranchised cements the cracks in a détente that shouldn’t have had a prayer. As a theme, loneliness made whole risks bathing in its own syrup. That never happens here; manifestly aware of overkill, Payne, screenwriter David Hemingson and their three attuned leads skirt potential schmaltz with a calibrated balance of light and shade. Randolph’s Mary is pragmatic grace under pressure, a singularly assured Sessa, whose first film this is, powers through a loop-the-loop of mood swings, while as an irascible pariah who learns to open his heart, Giamatti is a true to form gift.