The Holdovers Review | A New and Layered Christmas Classic

by Andrew Parker

For what might be the finest film of his career thus far, The Holdovers, Alexander Payne has achieved a pitch perfect balance between his trademarked usage of cynicism and sentimentality. A holiday season staple in the offing, The Holdovers weaves a familiar story with a blend of new and classic materials, made even better with a trio of engaging, heartbreaking performances. Aside from his lovely, amusing, and underrated film Nebraska, Payne’s ability to hit an emotional middle ground tends to falter, and he’s often better suited to works that are either cutting and blunt (Election) or naturally sweetened (The Descendants). The Holdovers is the first film of Payne’s to perfectly pivot between joy and sadness with effortless ease and dramatic satisfaction; a crowd pleaser that can give viewers more or less what they’re looking for in the genres contained within it. It’s a lovely, but never slight film.

Academic washout and loner-by-choice Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the most despised teacher at the posh, all male, small town New England boarding school Barton Academy. A history teacher, Paul – teased behind his back for his pair of lazy eyes – is relentless with his students, and unafraid of failing the kids whose parents expect good grades in return for hefty monetary gifts to the school. Around Christmas time in 1970, Paul, who lives on campus, is tasked with looking after the small handful of students that won’t be returning home for the holidays. The only other adult left on campus is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the brokenhearted kitchen manager who’s spending the holidays away from family following the death of her son – a former Barton student – in Vietnam. While Mary is content to serve leftovers and go through the motions, Paul is determined to continue with lessons like the holidays aren’t even happening. One of the students staying through the break is rebellious Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), arguably Paul’s brightest and most pain-in-the-ass pupil, who was ditched by his mother and stepfather at the last second so they could finally have the honeymoon they’ve been putting off. Over the course of the winter break, Paul, Angus, and Mary form a unique, sometimes contentious bond that will alter their life paths in unforeseen ways.

Shot on film in a grainy, chilly style befitting of Payne’s chosen time period and season, The Holdovers uniquely captures the feeling alone and unwanted in a large space that’s normally teeming with life. Places that once felt crowded and deafening to be in dwarf those left behind and make them feel like ants in a castle. It’s a wonderful visual motif to use for characters that are coming to grips with their own perceived feelings of insignificance, and the bonds that will develop make each of them just a bit more powerful by the end. The visual landscape and costuming in The Holdovers provides plenty of keys to understanding the sense of isolation and discomfort all of these different personalities feel being in a place that holds unfavourable memories for them. Time moves slowly and days start to blend into one another, until The Holdovers builds to a point in the story where they all decide to do something about their collective angst.

Payne’s direction and the script from television veteran David Hemingson is sharply focused on character development as the plot The Holdovers revolves around, with an early twist further creating an insular and isolating vibe that allows the film to go to psychologically and emotionally deeper levels. What emerges is a picture of three lost souls with different feelings about the situation: one of them doesn’t care one way or the other being stuck on campus, one hates the idea of spending the holidays alone, and the other is in a stunned state of suspended animation as a result of tragedy. With no one else around to talk to, these people realize they’ve rarely opened up to anyone about their issues in the first place. They might not be the best of friends, but there’s a therapeutic understanding if each other’s loneliness. Payne and Hemingson allow the audience to get to know these people at roughly the same pace which they get to bond, and it’s a credit to the strength of The Holdovers that the approach is never slow or boring to watch it all unfold.

Giamatti, working with Payne for the first time since Sideways, reaffirms his status as one of the finest casting choices to play an obstinate curmudgeon. Giamatti is able to place his character in this intellectual middle ground, where everything this teacher says is meant to be cuttingly witty, but one can also tell that this guy has spent far too much time in his own head thinking up insults and zingers in between his numerous bourbon breaks. And yet, Giamatti also has this ability to turn Paul into a classic Christmas movie character with a bunch of heart: a boor who suddenly realizes everything they’ve done wrong in life, is able to let go of the traumas that nearly ruined him and works towards some sense of betterment. Giamatti has outstanding chemistry with newcomer Sessa, who takes the cliched trope of a spoiled brat abandoned by their family and makes it into a compelling, well rounded portrait of neglect.

But as outstanding and spot on as Giamatti and Sessa are, it’s Randolph’s grieving mother and nonplussed lunch lady who steals every scene of The Holdovers. Capable of going from laughter to tears in a matter of seconds without it ever feeling out of place, Randolph’s performance is one of the most compelling and thoughtful depictions of loss in recent cinematic memory. While Paul and Angus bicker and parry back and forth about why their lives are so messed up and who has things worse, Mary is simply trying to stay busy enough to not wallow in despair. Her emotional needs provide the common ground needed to bring Angus and Paul closer together, and Randolph’s achingly beautiful performance provides the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy needed for Payne’s film to succeed. It’s a revelatory performance, and one of the year’s absolute best.

From everything outlined above, one could be forgiven for thinking this is simply another inspirational teacher movie, or a piece of seasonal claptrap where a grinch’s heart grows three sizes in the span of a few weeks, but that would be doing the granular emotional construction of The Holdovers a great disservice. It’s a film that deals with palpable anxieties and learned fears with a surprising amount of mindfulness and ease. Things sometimes get chaotic and painful, but Payne keeps things relaxed enough for the viewer to let it all soak in. It captures a kind of seasonal sense of reflection and malaise that comes naturally to many people, and does so without judgment or punches pulled; the perfect blend of jolliness and humbuggery.

The Holdovers opens exclusively at Cineplex Varsity Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, November 3, 2023. It expands to additional theatres and cities on Friday, November 10.

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