Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: David Hemingson
Producers: Bill Block, David Hemingson
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
Year: 2023
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 127 mins

There are some films that you are so sure you’re going to love that you build them up in your mind to a dangerous degree before seeing them. Then you often find you either don’t like them or that you like them well enough but your enjoyment has been overshadowed by the disappointment of them not living up to the impossibly high expectations you’ve placed on them. But then there’s that glorious third category: the ones that do live up to your self-created hype. For me, The Holdovers was one of those rare treasures. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. The only thing that slightly worried me was reports of the film having a faux-70s aesthetic, complete with vintage studio logos and retro credits. I often find affectations like these to be distracting and unnecessary but The Holdovers’ sparing use of this technique at the outset actually works beautifully, helping to establish the era in which it is set while simultaneously tipping its hat to the kind of film that inspired it. Interestingly, this brand of eloquent, character-focused, emotionally engaging but caustically funny film was prevalent during both the 70s era to which director Alexander Payne is paying tribute and the 90s independent cinema boom from which Payne himself first emerged. Since then, though I’m sure there have been examples in the interim, films like this have become the proverbial ones they don’t make ‘em like anymore and, despite the vaguely reactionary connotations of conservative phrases of that kind, The Holdovers conscious resurrection of this style feels like the return of an old friend. Thus it more than earns its 70s-pastiching introduction.

Christmas 1970 at Barton Academy: a New England boarding school. Strict, sardonic but morally virtuous classics professor Paul Hunham is lumbered with looking after a handful of students who are unable to go home over the holidays. Aside from Hunham and the students, the only other people left at the school are Danny the janitor and Mary the cook, the latter in the process of grieving for her teenage son Curtis who was recently killed in Vietnam. When the intervention of one of the boys’ parents allows the majority of the students to leave on a skiing trip, only the smart but troubled Angus Tully can’t leave as his mother and stepfather can’t be reached to grant permission. Tensions between the three apparently disparate people left behind are high at first but they begin to find some surprising common ground as they learn to accommodate each other’s foibles at this supposed time of peace and goodwill.

From a plot synopsis, The Holdovers might sound hackneyed or overly-sentimental. But while it’s fair to say I’ve seen this kind of story before, I’ve rarely seen it realised with such admirable restraint or intelligence. Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson manage to fully draw out the moving sentiment inherent in the material without resorting to unearned speechifying or characters giving uncharacteristic hugs. The film doesn’t hold back on emotion but it trusts its viewers to recognise the complexity of human reactions, epitomised in a moment in which a firm handshake says far more than the overreaching embrace that lesser filmmakers would’ve undoubtedly inserted in its place. No lifelong friendships are formed here but The Holdovers is astute enough to recognise that fleeting connections can be just as important in the grand scheme. The film is also very funny. Even as it deals with harrowing issues like death, grief, domestic violence and mental illness, it constantly keeps in mind how the human experience can pinball from the sublime to the ridiculous in seconds or even incorporate both simultaneously, the latter in particular being The Holdovers stock in trade.

With such a strong screenplay and director, The Holdovers needed a great cast and it’s hard to imagine a better fit for these roles than the actors who take them on here. Newcomer Dominic Sessa is the big surprise, his abrasive but tender take on the cocky but vulnerable Angus proving to be an immensely impressive film debut which he can hopefully build upon given the right opportunity. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, whose performance as Mary won the film its only Oscar (thanks Oppenheimer, you overly-dominant bore!), is someone I’ve had my eye on since she appeared in Dolemite is My Name in the sort of performance that makes you take a mental note. I thought at the time she seemed like a future Oscar winner but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Still, she pretty much swept aside all competition with her exceptional turn here. Though she is deeply sympathetic, neither Randolph nor Hemingson’s screenplay make Mary a saint. There is a terrific scene at a party in which she displays almost every sign of grief across the course of one situation, many of them in a single take that focuses on her changing expression. But the clear highlight of The Holdovers is the extraordinary performance by Paul Giamatti, who I really feel should have walked away with the Oscar too. He makes Paul Hunham into such a multi-dimensional character: intelligent but out of touch, harsh but sympathetic, and filled with laudable integrity. In the first scene, in which he is seen mumbling insults about the papers he is grading before taking a plate of Christmas cookies from a colleague without saying thank you, there’s an expectation that Paul will be a Scrooge like character being set up for a redemption arc. But the subsequent scene in which he defends his decision to accurately grade the paper of a privileged legacy student clearly displays his moral courage. Despite being rigidly curmudgeonly, Paul is immediately a likeable character in many ways. By the final scene he has learned some lessons but he hasn’t changed radically, which is true of the other characters too. They help to unlock certain levels of potential in each other but there are no roads to Damascus here. The open ended climax, especially in Paul’s case, leaves room for hope but also the equal potential for continued failure. It’s a realistic conclusion for a deeply human film.

One criticism about The Holdovers I’ve frequently come across is that it is too long. The film runs to just over two hours and some critics felt it could’ve made its point in less time. For me though, it was the perfect length. In order to accurately evoke the lengthy stretch of a Christmas holiday period and the feeling of being trapped somewhere you’d rather not be, the film needs space to mirror the purgatorial atmosphere. The runtime allows for this while also providing room for the characters to undergo their numerous revelations and shifting sympathies with an incremental realism. Payne punctuates this poignancy by playing certain scenes with a heightened farcical energy, such as a chase through the school corridors or a narrowly averted barroom brawl. Perhaps my favourite scene in the whole film is when Paul, in a rare mellow and accommodating mood, attempts to explain the origins of Santa Claus to a bowling alley barman and his customer. This is one of the film’s big laughs as we see how out of touch Paul is with the concept of casual conversation but, like everything in The Holdovers, there are layers here. In his enthusiasm and affability, we can glimpse how Paul lives to impart knowledge and how effectively he can do it if he channels this enthusiasm instead of his bitterness and disappointment. The fact that he also chooses completely the wrong audience for whom to demonstrate this ability adds a further layer of tragicomic brilliance.

The Holdovers touches on numerous issues including race, class, privilege, the generational divide, love, honour and integrity but it does so with such a lightness of touch that it never threatens to become a heavy-handed issues film. Instead, it emerges as a human and humane character piece whose astute awareness of societal ills is couched in terms of how its protagonists are depicted. It never loses sight of that crucial context, which is what makes it such an effective Christmas film (despite it ironically having been held over for a January release in the UK). It will do me, and I’m sure many others, so much good to have a film of such immense empathy and rich humanity as part of my regular Christmas rotation. Beats the hell out of Love Actually, eh?!

The Holdovers is released by Dazzler Media on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on 22 April 2024. Special features are as follows:

– Alternate ending
– Deleted scenes
– The Cast of The Holdovers featurette
– Working with Alexander featurette

Where to watch The Holdovers
The Holdovers
5.0Overall Score
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