Photo courtesy Focus Features

A group of misfits forging a “found family” is familiar subject matter for a lot of movies, but you’ll be hard pressed to find it done better than in “The Holdovers.”

The movie is the latest from director Alexander Payne who is known for making dourly comedic gems like “The Descendants,” “Nebraska” and “Sideways.” “The Holdovers” just might be his masterpiece.

Set in a New England prep school in the early 1970s, the movie stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, a caustic and bitter history teacher who draws the assignment of having to spend Christmas break watching over the students who are not going home for the holidays.

Paul’s lone charge is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), an intelligent upperclassman who nearly matches Paul when it comes to caustic bitterness.

Angus gives off some serious Holden Caulfield vibes and since they are two peas in a pod, Angus and Paul naturally aggravate the holy hell out of each other.

The counterbalance to these two sourpusses is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head cook and the only other person left on campus. Mary is tough but kindly and is dealing with her own trauma after losing her son in the Vietnam War.

The trio form an unlikely bond as various misadventures ensue.

The cast is as outstanding as it gets. No one could play Paul better than Giamatti as he revels in the character’s many off-putting foibles while letting his decent and principled heart shine through the cracks.

Sessa makes an impressive debut here as his ability to go toe to toe with Giamaitti and more than hold his own speaks volumes.

Randolph arguably gives the movie’s best performance as Mary navigates utter heartbreak while surrounded by the extremes of white privilege with incredible grace and strength. It’s award-worthy stuff, for sure.

In “The Holdovers,” Payne finds the perfect balance between comedy and melodrama that he has been searching for his entire career. Also the way he immerses the film in the early 1970s, not only with set designs and costumes but with filmmaking style as well, is done with expert precision. If a young Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford had strolled through the background, I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

“The Holdovers” is a sincerely heartfelt movie that delivers a lot of laughs. It’s a unique combination that is a joy to watch when it is pulled off this well.

“The Holdovers” is rated R for language, some drug use and brief sexual material.

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