Winter Solstice (2023) – Review and opinion about the film [UIP].  I spent the Christmas holidays at school

Most of the students at Barton Academy, a prestigious boarding school somewhere in Massachusetts, go home to spend the holidays with their families. However, some children are not so lucky and for various reasons are forced to stay in school. One of them is Angus Tully, an intelligent but also rebellious student who has already been expelled from several other institutions. He will be looked after by the annoying history teacher Mr Hunham and the school cook Mary Lamb. The worst holidays in the world are coming…

What really happened here?! I saw before the screening that people were praising Alexander Payne's latest film (including “Nebraska” and “Schmidt”), but I would never have suspected that a mediocre production featuring Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa would show up in front of an audience. The camera for the first time would really impress me. Halfway through the movie, I struggled not to cry in the auditorium, because at the Luna Cinema in Warsaw, the sound was so clear and distant, that when the movie ended and I walked out, the world seemed somehow… less unbearable. Definitely one of my favorite films of 2023, even if I only saw it for myself in 2024. I hope they release it more widely in cinemas, because it's a crime that in my movie town they ran it for literally three days, not even one week.

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The story takes place somewhere near Boston, in the fictional Barton Academy and its surroundings. Even though the movie is set against Christmas, the director apparently can't stand the fact that people refer to “Winter Solstice” as a Christmas movie. He believes that there is more to this story and that the fact that it is Christmas doesn't change anything. And of course he's right, it's hard not to feel a little magical when the old school building is covered in snow and the characters receive a Christmas gift from the professor in the form of a book (about history, of course). Payne has no responsibility for creating such an enchanting atmosphere. He was also very lucky, as all the snow seen in the film was not organic waste, paper or other bleached cornflakes, but the result of a real blizzard that had just attacked the set. I think it adds authenticity to the film and brings us closer to the characters. In general, the entire film was shot very authentically – literally every scene was shot on location, without artificial decorations, building studio rooms etc. Combined with the adopted 1970s aesthetics, one gets the impression that we are really watching a film made in the 1970s.

Winter Solstice (2023) – Review and opinion about the film [UIP]. Three different and very similar heroes

The plot is fairly simple – a group of people who, for various reasons, have nothing to do with each other, spend Christmas and New Year's Eve together. The strength of the screenplay lies in the characters, their reasons for being in school, and how they will help each other in the end. Angus (Cissa) wants to return to his mother, but she is busy with a new partner. To make matters worse, his school teacher would be a history man who had become angry with him during the last term before recess because of his, otherwise correct, comment about the advisability of starting a new term of studies one hour before recess. To say that Mr. Hunham (Giamattti) loves his subject is an understatement. The man is completely obsessed with history, unable to carry on even the most casual conversation without touching on at least one interesting fact about some long-dead ruler or custom. These teachers can be the best in the world or absolutely insufferable. This one here doesn't have an ounce of distance, so it clearly fits into the second category. Rounding out the three main characters is Mrs Lamb, the school cook, a feisty black woman who volunteered at Barton because it was the only way she could secure a place for her son at school. Unfortunately, the boy also decided to join the army, because after his return from Vietnam, the army would pay for his studies. He never came home.

This is the state the three of us are in when we meet them. The audience immediately feels the sense of injustice surrounding Tully and Mrs. Lamb, but over time, Mr. Hunham will also recognize this more humane, more sensitive side of himself. This is without a doubt one of Giamatti's greatest creations. We start the film genuinely hating him, understanding the youth, and sympathizing with them – the director very cleverly starts off with a whole group of children, but most of them disappear just before Christmas, taken in by their families. So we quickly get into the “young, energetic, angry students versus jaded teacher” atmosphere. However, we later begin to spend more time with the dog himself, observing him in situations that clearly show that his composure and the regular draining of subsequent bottles of Jim Beam are just a façade, a wall protecting him from the eyes of people who do not want to admit what is on his liver.. Gradually, gradually, Almost imperceptibly, we begin to feel sympathy for him, and by the end of the film we feel moved by him. A definite Oscar nominee. It's a little easier for Daphne Joy Randolph, because the situation her heroine finds herself in brings tears to her eyes, but it's the way she carries herself every day, the way she holds back her tears in complete silence and finally, how it breaks down when the emotions are so great So that it cannot be suffocated any longer, which makes the character gain shape and strength and stay with us for a longer time.

Winter Solstice (2023) – Review and opinion about the movie [UIP]. Style serves the story

Angus Tully and Pan Hunham

The story takes place in 1971 and the entire film was shot to remind us of this fact. The lighting, colors, and specific grain of the image have been carefully recreated to resemble an old film reel (because the film itself was shot digitally). Plus the costumes, the vocabulary, the character models – everything about this movie suggests it was made fifty years ago. Even the producers' logos and information about the age rating come from that era, and in the trailer we can hear the distinctive voice of the narrator selling us the plot.

Is this the best case scenario for last year? I don't know, maybe not. It's certainly very effective, but it also regularly plays on the viewer's emotions so sharply that you start to feel like it's surreal, and that someone has gone a little too far. This isn't enough to turn the viewer away from the session, but it's certainly enough to start noticing the layers of this seemingly smooth fabric. The rich soundtrack of well-known and popular tunes, like Cat Stevens' “The Wind” or if you prefer Yusuf Islam, is also an effective help in bringing tears to the viewer's eyes. These are tunes that, even without the support of our heroes' deeply sad and heart-wrenching stories, it's easy to get swept up in the emotions. And you know what? I buy it, swallow it without water and take the bait with the hook and fishing rod. It was a script written to play with emotions and the finished film does so incredibly effectively.

If a movie theater in your area is showing “Winter Solstice,” I highly recommend you bundle up, dress warmly, and go to the screening. This is certainly one of the best, most realistic and lively films of the year and the best Christmas movie since Netflix's 'Klaus', and the excellent performances of the three lead actors and their undeniable chemistry are completely worthy of attention and appreciation. The dialogue is great, the humor is effective and undeniably charming, and the music is just right. Must be.

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