The Holdovers – Film Review

Christmas time 1970 in New England, and the students of Barton Academy are anticipating their vacation. But as privileged as these rich boys are, not all are lucky enough to be spending time with loved ones. For five unlucky students, they will be stuck slumming it at school over break having “the most bullshit Christmas ever” in The Holdovers.

Drawing the short straw to watch over these students is history professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a highly educated yet sour man who is disliked by many of his peers and all of his pupils. Also staying on will be one of Paul‘s few friends, the head-cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), still mourning the loss of her son to the war in Vietnam. Rather than going easy on the kids, Paul intends to ride them just as hard as he thinks these pampered philistines deserve. It’ll be hard but at least the boys will be there for each other… until they aren’t.

After a few days, many are rescued from their prison all but for 15-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa), a gifted but trouble making teen who is just one step away from being sent to military school. Over two very long, very cold weeks, these three lost souls will form a bond as close as family. Paul and Angus in particular will have their preconceptions about one another challenged, learning as much about themselves as they do about each other in the process.

From ‘Sideways’ and ‘Nebraska’ director Alexander Payne comes another highly engaging dramatic comedy. This time, Payne directs a screenplay written by David Hemingson, who makes a triumphant cinematic debut with a deeply moving story. Looking at the intersecting lives of three very troubled people who are unexpectedly forced to spend “the most wonderful time of the year” together.

The Holdovers at a glance may seem trite or even a little predictable. There’s not a lot to this movie which we haven’t seen done before. What makes all the difference here is the amazing pairing of Payne and Hemingson. The film has a real throwback feeling to it from every aspect making it truly feel like a work from another era.

A very frank and honest approach is taken in dealing with these fully fleshed out characters. There is a back and forth between our teacher and student as they, at first, confrontationally challenge each other as enemies. But when a small window presents itself, the pair begin to learn that things are not quite as simple as they initially assumed.

Reuniting with Payne for the first time since ‘Sideways’ is Giamatti as the embittered wall-eyed professor who hates his students as much as they hate him. Giamatti as always, is brilliant in bringing this character to life and we see Professor Hunham’s love for teaching come out as he mentors Angus.

While Randolph all but guarantees herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination in the role of Mary. It would be nice to see her a little more to be fair, as the plot is more concerned with the relationship between Paul and Angus. However, Mary represents the true heart of the film, a woman who suffered the greatest loss a mother can suffer, yet still keeps going, with those maternal instincts guiding Paul towards becoming a better person.

This natural depth can be seen from nearly every role in The Holdovers. Early on, the other students are each given the same level of characterisation as Angus himself. This includes establishing certain relationships, for example, when Angus comforts a distraught younger student after having a nightmare as an older sibling would a little brother. When these supporting characters leave the school, you feel it. The empty hallways become an even sadder and lonelier place to spend a Christmas.

These feelings of longing are aided by the film’s retro approach. As said The Holdovers feels like a throwback, this is thanks to not only the period setting but several other tactics employed by Payne. The film’s studio logos, credits and camera work by cinematographer Eigil Bryld, all are presented as if this is a forgotten classic film that was made during the 70s.

It enhances the feeling of nostalgia and reflects The Holdovers’ themes of acknowledging history. There is little we can experience which has not been seen before and the world went on, a message which we do not only see Paul get through to Angus but also learn to the importance of himself.

Joining the ranks of other heartfelt Christmas movies such as ‘It’s a Wonderfully Life’, The Holdovers is a joyful experience. Life affirming and emotional, its messages are important and its characters are fun to watch and grow on the viewer. Truly a return to form for director Alexander Payne and possibly the most endearing film of his storied career.

The Holdovers is in cinemas from January 11, 2024.

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