Was Dominic Sessa of The Holdovers Robbed of An Oscar Nomination?

Our answer is: Yes.
Was Dominic Sessa of The Holdovers Robbed of An Oscar Nomination?

It’s a tough year to crack the Best Supporting Actor category at the Oscars. Populated by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer), Robert De Niro (Killers of the Flower Moon) and Mark Ruffalo (Poor Things), you could argue it’s hard to make a case for a debutant like Dominic Sessa. 

Yet here’s an actor who holds his own next to stellar performances by Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (who have been nominated for the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress Oscars respectively), breathing life into his character and establishing himself as a talent to watch out for. Set in New England in the Seventies, Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is about the unlikely but ultimately heart-warming connection that forms between three very lonely people who find themselves spending Christmas and the end of the year at an empty boarding school. 21-year-old Sessa plays Angus Tully, a student who feels abandoned by his family and finds companionship with Barton Academy’s most hated teacher, Paul Hunham (Giamatti), and the kindly head cook, Mary Lamb (Randolph). 

At the beginning of the film, Angus is a sullen, Holden Caulfield-esque teenager, full of smart-aleck retorts (“I resent that baseless accusation,” he says when another student blames him for a pack of stolen cigarettes) and defiance for authority (he questions if Hunham should really be starting a new chapter right before winter break: “Honestly, it’s a little absurd… Sir.”). With flinty eyes and angular features set in a permanent scowl, Sessa leaves us in no doubt of Angus’s exasperation and frustration with the world around him. Yet he also brings an aching vulnerability to his performance, unfolding what Angus keeps hidden slowly and thoughtfully. 

We learn that Angus has been kicked out of three schools, and if he doesn’t stick it out at Barton, he will be shipped off to a military academy. It’s evident that the reason he’s changed schools is his prickliness, rather than his credentials as a student. Angus is bright — even a demanding stickler like Hunham gives Angus a B+ — but he is also troubled, often mouthing off and getting into fights with other students. 

Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers
Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers

Dominic Sessa is a revelation as Angus and The Holdovers is a debut for the ages. For someone who never intended to be an actor — Sessa was on the road to becoming an athlete when a broken femur derailed his plans, eventually drawing him to his school’s theatre scene and a chance audition for Alexander Payne — he becomes Angus without any hint of awkwardness, channelling the apprehensions of late adolescence with empathy and humour. He also doesn’t lose sight of the maturity that Angus has garnered because of his life experiences. 

There’s a sensitivity to Angus that belies his youth, like when he realises Hunham needs Angus to lie to an acquaintance in order to make Hunham out to seem more glamorous than he actually is. At one point, Angus ends up in hospital with a dislocated shoulder and he’s able to sweet-talk an attending nurse so that she doesn’t put the case on file (so neither Angus nor Hunham get in trouble). His profound angst spills over in an argument with Hunham when Angus furiously blurts out that his father is dead, a lump in his throat and the barest of tears glistening in his eyes. (We later learn Angus’s father is in fact alive, but institutionalised for mental health issues. The scene in which Angus visits his father lets Sessa show a painfully earnest side to his character, without the façades that he otherwise hides behind.) 

Towards the end of the film, there is a two-and-a-half-minutes long take in which Payne focuses attention on Angus’s face as he opens up about his disturbed family life, his anxieties over his future, and his fear of turning into his father; the camera slowly pulls out to reveal he’s talking to Hunham. Occasionally, his voice quavers even as he tries to put on a brave front, averting his gaze when the words he’s saying are a little too difficult to acknowledge. As a viewer, you are grateful that he has Hunham and Mary by his side, to make him feel like he finally belongs. And if you don’t tear up at Angus’s delight when Hunham and Mary put together a makeshift Cherries Jubilee for him, you may just be a robot.

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