Partly a conversion story, partly a study in the triumph of friendship over isolation, the moving comedy-tinged drama “The Holdovers” (Focus) is an intimate, beautifully crafted film. Yet, while this masterful picture’s appeal might potentially extend to teen moviegoers, a barrage of off-color language precludes recommendation for them.

Director Alexander Payne’s emotionally pitch-perfect production is set at Barton Academy, a fictional New England boarding school, during the Christmas vacation of 1970-71. The plot focuses on three individuals stranded on campus over the holidays after the vast majority of instructors and pupils alike depart to celebrate with their loved ones.

As punishment for flunking a student with powerful connections, mean-spirited and universally disliked ancient history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) has been given the task of supervising the handful of kids who will not be going home. A change of circumstances, however, soon reduces the number of his charges to one.

Paul’s sole remaining protege is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Intellectually promising but troubled and mildly rebellious, Angus, at the outset, has as low an opinion of Paul as everyone else. He’s also grappling with his unsettled family situation in the wake of his mother Judy’s (Gillian Vigman) remarriage.

Rounding out the marooned trio is Barton’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Deeply bereaved by the recent death of her son, Curtis, a casualty of the war in Vietnam, Mary has chosen to spend the yuletide alone rather than face interacting with relatives and friends.

As they get to know each other better, Angus gradually realizes that there’s more to Paul’s personality than the bitterness and petty cruelty he generally projects. Egged on by sensible, well-grounded Mary, meanwhile, Paul softens, relaxes and becomes attuned to insecure Angus’ vulnerability.

Paul’s acrid initial outlook on life includes aggressively stated atheism. But, far from vindicating this lack of belief, the narrative instead implicitly endorses the critical skepticism with which it’s met by the obviously religious Mary, who serves as the tale’s moral compass throughout.

Warm in tone and rich in insight, screenwriter David Hemingson’s script delves into the personal complexities lying below the surface of the story as he charts the formation of an unlikely but firm bond among the principals. Striking performances, especially from Giamatti, further enhance “The Holdovers,” helping to make it a touching and memorable experience for viewers.

The film contains glimpses of pornography, drug use, more than a dozen profanities, a few milder oaths, frequent rough and crude talk and an obscene gesture. The OSV News classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

—John Mulderig, OSV News