The Holdovers

Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa turn in exceptional performances in the moving and funny first film from 'Sideways' filmmaker Alexander Payne since 2017.
Sarah Ward
January 11, 2024

Overview

Melancholy, cantankerousness, angst, hurt and snow: all five blanket Barton Academy in Alexander Payne's The Holdovers. It's Christmas in the New England-set latest film from the Election, About Schmidt and Nebraska director, but festive cheer is in short supply among the students and staff that give the movie its moniker. The five pupils all want to be anywhere but stuck at their exclusive boarding school over the yuletide break, with going home off the cards for an array of reasons. Then four get their wish, leaving just Angus Tully (debutant Dominic Sessa), who thought he'd be holidaying in Saint Kitts until his mother told him not to come so that she could have more time alone with his new stepdad. His sole company among the faculty: curmudgeonly classics professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti, Billions), who's being punished for failing the son of a wealthy donor, but would be hanging around campus anyway; plus grieving head cook Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Only Murders in the Building), who is weathering her first Christmas after losing her son — a Barton alum — in the Vietnam War.

The year is 1970 in Payne's long-awaited return behind the lens after 2017's Downsizing, as the film reinforces from its opening seconds with retro studio credits. The Holdovers continues that period-appropriate look in every frame afterwards — with kudos to cinematographer Eigil Bryld (No Hard Feelings), who perfects not only the hues and grain but the light and softness in his imagery — and matches it with the same mood and air, as if it's a lost feature unearthed from the era. Cat Stevens on the soundtrack, a focus on character and emotional truths, zero ties to franchises, a thoughtful story given room to breathe and build: that's this moving and funny dramedy. Christmas flicks regularly come trimmed with empty, easy nostalgia, but The Holdovers earns its wistfulness from a filmmaker who's no stranger to making movies that feel like throwbacks to the decade when he was a teen.

In the first of his eight pictures actually set in the 70s, Payne tells a tale that audiences can plot out from the setup alone. The Holdovers also charts a story so on the director's wavelength that, even though it's only the second of his films that he didn't also script, it comes as no surprise that he specifically commissioned it from screenwriter David Hemingson (Whiskey Cavalier) after reading a pilot by him set in a boarding school, and also watching 1935 French effort Merlusse. But spying where this account of three lonely souls thrust together over the holidays is heading doesn't temper its delights and depths; the journeys that Paul, Angus and Mary take; or spending time in the trio's presence. While movie narratives are often predictable — that there's only so many basic plots is a common writing concept — the devils and joys are in the details, relationships and idiosyncrasies, as Payne unpacks with help from excellent performances.

The Holdovers knows how to construct and flesh out characters; in Paul's gruff demeanour with his class, who he's happy to flunk — and particularly ferocious about putting the most privileged in their place — the film says plenty about the man and how everyone around him sees him. He's hardly thrilled with his chaperoning gig, taking to it like teaching. Angus, one of his outspoken but socially awkward pupils, is equally miserable. And Mary is just endeavouring to get through a tough time heightened by the supposedly merriest part of the year. That each will come to better understand the other, plus themselves, is exactly what's expected, and what Payne and Hemingson dive into. The layers unpeeled, however, are exquisite — not only showing what's led the three figures to this physical place in their lives, and to their current emotional and psychological juncture as well, but letting viewers see themselves in each and every one.

Payne and Giamatti reteam following 2004's Sideways, which brought the former the first of his three directing Oscar nominations to-date, and also gave him a statuette for co-writing the adapted screenplay. The Holdovers is a welcome reunion, again casting Giamatti as a dispirited teacher, but his older years are felt. The corduroy-wearing, pipe-smoking Paul is a holdover in several manners, including as a former Barton student now working at the academy, someone whose dreams haven't come true and a man maintaining his frostiness after a lifetime of not fitting in. Every aspect is naturalistically grounded in Giamatti's acerbic Golden Globe-winning portrayal, as is the fact that choosing something different, breaking his routines and no longer holding himself over is a trickier prospect when you've spent more time set in your ways than you have left to change.

This virtual three-hander pairs its biggest on-screen name with two just-as-exceptional performances by Randolph and newcomer Sessa. She's another 2024 Golden Globe-recipient and he, after being discovered as an elite Massachusetts boarding school perhaps not unlike Barton — it's one of five used as locations in the movie — kicks off what's certain to be a promising career. There's such soulfulness in the no-nonsense, just-getting-by Mary, who has no other option but to keep overseeing the academy's kitchen after the worst thing that can ever happen to a mother, and gives Rustin and The Idol's Randolph her best role since Dolemite Is My Name. And there's such spark mixed with pain in Sessa's young Dustin Hoffman-esque turn (a comparison reinforced when Paul and Angus hit the cinema to see western Little Big Man, which stars Hoffman, and by The Holdovers overall harking back to The Graduate times).

Think: Dead Poets Society and With Honours, too. Think: The Shining as well, thanks to the snowy, sprawling and empty site where the characters and their thoughts are left to roam. But The Holdovers finds its own space as it ponders striving against remaining in a spot in your life that's anything but what you truly want, and also how one person's flaws and failings can be another's source of inspiration — packaging both with ample laughs. This is a witty and amusing film with dialogue that bounces and proves finely observed at the same time, as its characters and the entire movie also do. Down Under, The Holdovers' release has been held over until after Christmas, pitching its big-screen arrival as awards season heats up — Giamatti and Randolph are highly likely Academy Award-nominees — but it's also perfect bittersweet future festive viewing.

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