Review: The Holdovers

Quirky characters, moving stories, heartache, wrapped in a cosy and familiar blanket.

1970 Christmas time, a boys boarding school must house the kids who have nowhere to go for the festive period. This task is given to one of the faculty’s older and most curmudgeonly teachers. Can any of these reluctant individuals find sympathy in such company?

Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Downsizing) and starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa, The Holdovers is a delight. Released in North America in December 2023, the film’s Christmas time setting is a little lost on United Kingdom audiences, with the film releasing (for some reason) at the end of January, but that aside, the film is a wonderful and moving experience.

Many may be drawn to the movie due to Payne’s previous work, namely the very popular comedy Sideways (which also starred Paul Giamatti) from 2004. But the film is quick to give audiences clues as to this film’s pace. While Sideways was a quick, snappily written affair, The Holdovers is a more relaxed, mellow affair; displayed as such with immediate vistas of snowy New England in the 70s.

Just your average Christmas dinner.

However, the film immediately kicks into gear with the introduction of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) a professor in history at the Barton boys’ school. He is resoundingly hated by the students, and he returns this in kind as they all fail to meet is standards; standards that even the headmaster of the school resents as failing students reflects badly on the institution. There is one boy, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) who shows promise compared to the others, but is no more withdrawn and uncontrollable as the others.
The title of the film is referring to Paul and his collection of “unwanted” miscreants being held within the school during the holidays with only the cook, a grieving mother who lost her child, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) for company. The kids don’t want to be there, he is career-driven and has no social skills. They are all set for a miserable time. Or are they?

The writing here is extremely effective. All of Paul Giamatti’s lines are wicked stingers and delivered with a snipping confidence that only he could provide. To his character no one is beyond reproach, and therefore no one enjoys his company. This is actually a man who thinks about the Roman Empire all the time. Literally. All the time. Alongside him, Dominic Sessa, a newcomer to the big screen no less, is just as cunning and acidic in his remarks, but just a little more cautious and inward. We should expect great things from Sessa going forward. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance is far, far more reserved but no less cutting; easily standing beside the others.

All of this is written by David Hemingson, the only writer credit (not something seen very often these days) and his first feature film credit, otherwise having worked in television.

Even the film’s reviews were turned analogue!

Films like these are often reliant on their writing. The Holdovers is a beautifully composed, edited and shot movie, too. From the trailer, the promotional material, to the grain on the camera, and the set dressing and costumes, everything is drenched in a 1970s aesthetic. The film was shot digitally, but these celluloid blemishes and dirt specks were added later. It gives the film a vintage, genuine and warm glow.

The script may be full of cutting remarks and rebuttals between characters, giving incredible comedic scenes, but the film also has a very real gravitas at its heart. A sombre melancholy just beneath the surface, and isn’t just reserved for Mary’s character. The film gives each of our characters great chemistry and background to bounce off one another; because after all, no one is perfect, no one has a perfect contented life no matter how hard they pretend. The emotional weights crash down, yet the enlightening and still sharp dialogue carries us through the troubles. We see characters who had otherwise hated and despised each other, realize that they can actually help each other.

The Holdovers might be a new favourite Christmas movie. Everything works. The pacing, the character chemistry, the performances, the grainy analogue-style presentation. Perhaps in some ways it isn’t the most unpredictable story ever written, but it has tremendous humour, heart, honesty, and value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *