‘The Holdovers,’ ‘The Marvels’ both feature trios whose youngest stars shine brightest

Posted 11/15/23


Two very different films showcased the standout acting talents of their young supporting performers in theaters this past weekend.

Dominic Sessa made his film acting debut in "The …

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‘The Holdovers,’ ‘The Marvels’ both feature trios whose youngest stars shine brightest



Two very different films showcased the standout acting talents of their young supporting performers in theaters this past weekend.

Dominic Sessa made his film acting debut in "The Holdovers," by two-time Academy Award-winning director Alexander Payne, and Sessa holds his own in spite of sharing the screen with seasoned performers Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph.

This unlikely trio forms the backbone of a Christmas character study, set in a fictional Massachusetts boarding school in 1970.

Payne's fidelity to the era descends to recreating the picayune stylistic touches of a motion picture that would have been shot and released during that year, but I was struck by how quickly those details passed from my attention, in favor of simply taking in the interactions of our three primary "holdovers" from the student body, school staff and faculty who are left behind on the campus over the holidays.

Giamatti, who'd previously worked with Payne on the director's Oscar-winning "Sideways" in 2004, finds a compellingly sympathetic wavelength with Randolph, because while their characters — the sarcastically curmudgeonly classics teacher, and the cafeteria administrator who quietly carries on, even after losing her son to the Vietnam war — might seem more marked by their contrasts, they've both seen their dreams denied, through no fault of their own, and ruefully resigned themselves to lives that are "good enough" instead.

What makes Sessa spark off both of these experienced players is not just what his character draws out of theirs, but also how instinctively he inspires and responds to them as fellow actors.

Sessa's character is the only student in Giamatti's class whom we see breaking out of the teacher's C-to-F grading range, with a B+ on his midterm exam, but he's also been kicked out of enough previous boarding schools that, if this history repeats itself just one more time, he's headed for a military academy.

The plot is entirely unsurprising, as the cynical old man comes to recognize what's special inside this troubled young kid, who in turn comes to realize his stodgy instructor actually has some fascinating and valuable life lessons to offer him, but the specific backstory revelations matter far less than the authentic emotions that Sessa and Giamatti portray, in unfolding layers of mutual frustration, grudging respect and vulnerable affection.

And just as Giamatti, as the mentor figure, sees a bit of his younger self in Sessa's boy at the crossroads, so too does Randolph, as the grieving mother, respond to Sessa as an emotional orphan, of an affluent family that would just as soon forget him.

Given Sessa and Giamatti's shared knack for playfully sardonic dialogue, Randolph also serves as an essential counterweight, to keep the philosophical pair from disappearing up themselves.

"The Holdovers" is an affecting, contemplative, entirely unambitious crystalline moment of a movie that will nonetheless stay with you for a while after you've left the theater.

In genre and tone, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's "The Marvels" could not be more removed from "The Holdovers," but like Dominic Sessa, Iman Vellani is both its newest recruit to acting and its most promising talent.

As an unintended consequence of the MCU's latest generic galactic-level villain, veteran superhero Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), finds her powers entangled with those of not only her estranged adoptive niece, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who was previously Captain Marvel in Marvel Comics, but also Vellani's Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel.

Zawe Ashton — the real-life romantic partner of fellow MCU actor Tom Hiddleston, who just delivered a career-best performance in the second-season finale of "Loki" on Disney+ — is utterly wasted as this film's Big Bad, who wants revenge on Carol for inadvertently causing a civil war that wrought havoc on her people's homeworld, but the interactions between our three "Marvels" is entertaining, endearing and well worth watching.

For starters, while many male Marvel fans have criticized Carol Danvers as an all-too-stoic "Mary Sue" (a derisive fandom nickname for a character who's written without sufficient or realistic flaws), "The Marvels" affords Larson the opportunity to show how Carol's tendency to cut herself off from others has left her socially stunted.

And while Carol Danvers doesn't age, due to her powers, the now-adult Monica Rambeau remembers looking up to her "aunt" Carol when she was a little girl, which is why Monica calls out Carol for not returning from the stars, leaving Monica alone after her mother died of cancer.

But the most valuable player of "The Marvels" is unquestionably Vellani as Kamala, a teenage superhero fangirl who's not only basking in being able to be a superhero herself, but is exultant at finally meeting her favorite hero, Carol as Captain Marvel.

Although the relatively inexperienced Kamala is understandably overwhelmed at first, she remains a quick-thinking combatant who's driven by compassion and moral responsibility.

The interlinking of the Marvels' powers, which causes them to switch places physically whenever they activate their powers at the same time, is a remarkably effective vehicle for some of the most dynamic and inventive close-quarters combat scenes I've seen yet in the MCU.

And in the spirit of nerd media ranging from 2001's "Once More, with Feeling" episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," to this year's "Subspace Rhapsody" episode of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," the MCU can boast its own in-canon musical sequence (beyond "Rogers: The Musical" in "Hawkeye"), as "The Marvels" encounter an alien race that communicates through song, and Kamala grooves enthusiastically to the Bollywood-style beat.

Yes, anyone who's read my reviews of "Ms. Marvel" on Disney+ has seen me say this already, but Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan is an absolute superstar combination of actor and character, like Chris Evans as Captain America crossed with Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

The ending of "The Marvels" teases Kamala's future role among the younger heroes we've seen crop up in the MCU, and its mid-credits scene should delight anyone who's old enough to have grown up with a certain Fox Kids cartoon during the 1990s.