Although I am not an expert in cinema, I have to believe that I am one of many people who count Alexander Payne as one of the best directors at work today. I have not seen all of Payne’s films but the ones I have seen are amazing. Yes, with few exceptions you have to be ready for some rough language and such in these films but Payne regularly produces stories of lyric redemption.
No, not full-on redemption from sin through Christ. Payne’s redemptive stories are redolent of a different kind of grace. These films may not traffic in redemption from sin per se but they do present redemption from one of sin’s more glaring results: we are all of us broken people. We may not all be broken in the same ways but degrees of brokenness are our common lot.
It is ironic that the director’s name is a homophone of “pain” because nearly all of his protagonists are people bearing so very much broken pain in their hearts. In About Schmidt it is the purposeless and suddenly widowed ex-actuary Warren Schmidt. In Sideways it is the lonely and failed writer Miles. In The Descendants it’s the conflicted Matt King and his troubled daughters Alexandra and Scottie dealing with the sudden demise of a wife and mother. In Nebraska it is the estranged father and son Woody and David Grant.
And now in Payne’s newest film, The Holdovers, it is the cynical and disliked (oft hated) teacher Paul Hunham and his equally cynical and unlikeable student Angus Tully. (I am not the first to note that the teacher’s last name is an anagram for “human,” and more on that below.) Mr. Hunham is a seemingly hard-nosed cynic who regards his pupils at the elite Barton boarding school as philistines and troglodytes whom he seems more eager to berate than educate. Played by Paul Giamatti, Hunham is the proverbial piece of work. As curmudgeons go, Hunham makes H.L. Mencken look like a slacker. When a student receives an exam blue book back with a D- grade (better than one student who got F-), he says “I can’t fail this class.” “Oh, don’t sell yourself short,” Hunham replies, “I truly believe you can.”
But as always in Payne’s films, that is merely the exterior of a lonely, vulnerable, and hurting person who in the course of the film will find ways to connect on a deep level with two of the equally broken people around him when it falls to him to be the teacher-in-residence who has to stay on campus over Christmas Break with “the holdovers”—these are the students who cannot go home for Christmas for whatever the reason. Also staying behind for the holidays is Mary Lamb, the cafeteria director and chief cook who is mourning the recent death of her son in Vietnam (the film is set in December 1970).
This isn’t a movie review so I won’t detail any more of the plot except to say that as always Payne navigates things with both brutal honesty about people’s faults and fierce sympathy for their broken humanity. And the film ends as Payne’s films basically always do with a shining of redemptive grace. Again, not redemption in the full-blown Christian sense but something that is on the same trajectory of what Christ alone can accomplish fully for any of us: a revealing of and a restoration of the image of God that is still there in all people, even if for many of us it is buried beneath thick layers of brusqueness and cynicism and a defensiveness borne of hurt and disappointment.
The advent of that ultimate redemption is what we celebrate at Christmas. The Son of God came down to be “with us,” to be Immanuel to us and for us and in so doing he had to confront all the things that have kept us from being the humans God intended us to be.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” the theologian Irenaeus once said. Payne’s broken humans (and Hunhams) begin to come alive in this director’s films. It is not full redemption. But it’s a start, and it reminds us of why in the end we need the Babe of Bethlehem’s stall to come and rescue us from all that breaks (and often embitters) our hearts in this sad world.
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