‘The Holdovers’ Is an Instant Holiday Classic

John Maescher ‘27 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

It may seem like it’s become a cliche to lament how they just don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore, but there’s certainly a truth to the sentiment. As the streaming landscape prioritizes “content” over art and major studios blow exorbitant amounts of money on franchises with increasingly diminishing returns, it’s entirely justified to long for the modest, mid-budget dramas of yore. As a result, it feels like a joyous occasion in the instances where someone actually does make one like they used to. Director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants) has done exactly that in his latest film The Holdovers, a coming-of-age holiday dramedy that’s not only set in the 1970s but goes to painstaking lengths to feel like a film that could have been plucked straight out of the time period. From the film grain enveloping the screen to the retro stylistic choices (zooms, wipes, slow dissolves) to the costume and set design, Payne makes no secret of his desire to make a film that resembles the classics he grew up with. But make no mistake, The Holdovers is much more than a simple pastiche. In a filmography full of sharp and keenly observed character dramas, Payne may have made his most affecting and sensitively handled work yet.

The year is 1970, and it’s Christmas break at Barton Academy, a fictional boarding school in Western Massachusetts. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a curmudgeonly Ancient Civilization teacher who views his students with contempt, speaks frequently in pompous Roman quotations, has a glass eye, and is afflicted with a medical condition that makes him smell like fish towards the end of the day. He’s been assigned to take care of the “holdovers” – the students who are unlucky enough to have to stay at school over winter break. In a short amount of time, the group narrows down to just one remaining holdover: Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who’s unexpectedly forced at the last minute to stay behind after his mother decides to take an impromptu honeymoon with her new husband. Angus, Paul, and the head chef Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) are the only people left at the school, forming an unlikely bond as they’re forced to make the best of the situation.

In addition to the stylistic aesthetics of the ‘70s, The Holdovers shares similar DNA with other notable boarding-school-set tales of wayward adolescence, such as Rushmore and Dead Poets Society. But despite how much it may recall films of the past, The Holdovers has its own bittersweet melancholy, poignancy, and humor. Paul, Angus, and Mary are all people who are broken in unique ways, and we come to understand, empathize, and care deeply for each of them by the end of the runtime. Mary is a grieving mother spending her first Christmas alone since the death of her only son in Vietnam. Angus’s family troubles and the loss of his father have left him confused and angry at the world, lashing out through a rebellious nature as a problem child. Paul is a loner whose contempt for others seems to generate from his disappointment in himself and the path he ended up on, preferring to focus his most valuable energy on his work and spend his downtime immersed in mystery novels with a bottle of whiskey by his side. This may make the film sound like it’s wallowing in misery, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Christmas season can often be just as lonely for many people as it is celebratory for others. Payne understands this, and The Holdovers finds its emotional core in this truth. As these three broken people find common ground with each other, the film develops a warmth to fight off the bitter December cold.

The Holdovers wouldn’t work without the right actors embodying these characters, but Payne has found a finely attuned trio of performances to anchor the film. Reuniting for the first time since Sideways in 2004, Giamatti and Payne demonstrate again how well they pair together, with Giamatti’s gruff demeanor a perfect match for Payne’s acerbic bite. Randolph gives a deeply affecting performance, making us feel every emotion Mary feels as she processes her grief. But Sessa is the true standout here, in a major revelation of a breakout performance; he’s a first-time actor who was found as a student at the shooting location of Deerfield Academy. His work immediately comes across as natural and authentic, and despite how tough it can be to accurately cast young actors in period pieces, Sessa looks like he was pulled directly from 1970. The performances are just as lived-in as the film itself, which crafts a very specific portrait of New England in the wintertime that will feel instantly familiar and evocative to anyone from the area. And David Hemingson’s script (this is Payne’s first film without his own writing credit) never goes for cheap sentimentality; everything rings true and genuine. Life lessons are learned, but there are no easy fixes or answers for these broken people. Instead, they’ve simply come to an understanding of each other and found a catharsis they didn’t know they were looking for, which is sometimes exactly what we need when we’re lonely and have no one else to turn to. The Holdovers is a delightful watch for its wry sense of humor and cozy aesthetics, but it’s the poignant emotional truths and rich depths of its characters that make the film linger after the credits have rolled. It’s been a while since a Christmas film came along that felt like an instant classic for the season, but The Holdovers will almost certainly prove an enduring addition to the holiday rotation.

The Holdovers is now playing in limited release, expanding to more theaters throughout November.

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