(Toronto) American director Alexander Payne entered the Oscar race with Monday’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival of his new film Winter Break, a poignant comedy-drama that depicts a grumpy professor and his tormented student in the 1970s.

After Sideways in 2004, the film marks the reunion of Alexander Payne with actor Paul Giamatti, who here plays the role of Paul Hunham. A grumpy teacher at a school in the northeastern United States, he has no problem defeating his students by imagining that their parents’ money should buy them good grades.

During the winter holidays, he is forced to stay in the school’s boarding house to supervise the few students who cannot return for Christmas. In the end, only one remains: Angus, played by neophyte Dominic Sessa, whose home life is tumultuous.

Over the course of the film, the two build their own improbable family.

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, as well as screenwriter David Hemingson were not present Monday for the screening at the Toronto film festival, TIFF, due to the ongoing double strike of actors and screenwriters in Hollywood.

The director, with Oscar-winning screenplays for Sideways and The Descendants, praised young Dominic Sessa, recruited from one of the Massachusetts boarding schools where the film was shot.

“To be on par with Paul Giamatti for his very first film is truly remarkable,” Alexander Payne said during a post-screening Q&A.

TIFF, which ends on September 17, is seen as a springboard for many films, notably with its Audience Award which has established itself as a barometer in the race for the Oscars. In recent years, two of its winners, Nomadland and Green Book, won the Oscar for best film after being noticed in Toronto.

Awards screening site Gold Derby places Winter Break, scheduled for theatrical release in December, among its leading contenders for several prestigious Oscars, including best picture and best director.