"The Holdovers" stars Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Gillian Vigman, and Tate Donovan. Released on October 27, 2023, the film has a history teacher chaperoning students during Christmas break.
The film was directed by Alexander Payne, who also directed films such as "The Passion of Martin", "Sideways", "Nebraska", and "Downsizing". There's nothing like spending the holiday season at home with your loved ones, especially when you're off campus for a few weeks. However, there are some occasions when people are forced to spend Christmas at school, with this being one of them. It may not be a pleasant way to spread holiday cheer, but it can bring out some miracles if they look hard enough. Since everyone loves celebrating the holidays before the Thanksgiving feast, I decided to cave in and join the craze as well. Usually, I would watch a classic holiday film to get me in the festive mood, but today, I decided to watch the latest comedy-drama from Alexander Payne that's getting everyone into the Christmas spirit. Yes, even the grumpy and rebellious ones. Was it able to do the same thing for me? Let's find out.
The story takes place in 1970s New England, where Barton Academy is closing for the holiday break. The movie focuses on Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a disgruntled history teacher everybody hates due to his uptight attitude. When several students can't return home for the holidays, Paul is tasked with supervising them on school grounds. One of the students he's forced to watch over is Angus Tully (Sessa), a rebellious but troubled teen grieving the loss of his father. As the wintery days progress, Paul gradually builds a friendship with Angus while embarking on several scenarios that have them seeing the goodness in each other.
My experience with Alexander Payne's work is relatively minimal. I remembered seeing parts of "The Descendants", but the only movie that fully got me into his works was "Downsizing" six years ago. Not many people enjoyed that movie about a tiny Matt Damon when it first came out. However, I thought it was a solid depiction of its interesting yet divisive storytelling ideas, even though some didn't work as well as others. It was enough for me to see his latest project, which explores the topic of tragedy and grief. Of course, what better way to spread these depressing thoughts than during the holidays with some of the most bittersweet people to date? Usually, spending Christmas with some despicable people can be a massive humbug. However, "The Holdovers" proves to be an exception.
I expected myself to like it as much as "Downsizing", but I actually wound up adoring it, and it's not just because of the filmmaking craftsmanship by Alexander Payne. It also reminded me why I love watching holiday-related movies occasionally. Sure, we love to see films about families getting together for the holidays, but we also adore ones about the human soul during the Christmas season. "The Holdovers" is a wonderfully bittersweet portrayal of this topic that benefitted from Payne's profound execution of its concept, characters, and 1970s presentation. On paper, the story seems like an ordinary modern comedy about two disgruntled people surviving each other and getting into wacky scenarios. While that may be the case, it's actually much deeper than what we're led to believe, as it focuses on these characters and their personal problems that led them to become bitter people. It's about them overcoming their tragic pasts to have a brighter future and change themselves for the better.
This element was what got me interested in Payne in the first place. He has a unique way of turning straightforward concepts like tiny people and "holdover" students into something that's moving, poetic, and even hilarious. I'm happy to say that "The Holdovers" proves that Payne hasn't lost his footing in his vision. I would even say that it's a vast improvement over "Downsizing" regarding his direction. The story is focused and well-paced enough to excuse its two-hour-plus runtime, and the tone is engagingly down-to-earth and consistent without being a complete buzzkill. One reason for that is its mixture of comedy and drama. It has some downer moments to accompany its ill-mannered main characters. However, they're also not without the movie's levity and charm to make the experience satisfyingly tender and amusing without disrupting its intended tone. I also loved David Hemingson's screenplay for its simplistic yet thoughtfully bright story and hilarious dialogue between the characters. It's definitely got my vote in this year's Oscar race.
The main leads also did an incredible job making their seemingly dislikable characters engaging and wholesome. Paul Giamatti delivers one of the best performances of his career as Paul Hunham in his second collaboration with Payne after 2004's "Sideways". While I enjoyed Giamatti for his comedic roles, his portrayal of the sour yet complex history teacher showed me he could also pull off his dramatic side exceptionally well. He's hilarious to watch, as usual, but he also knows how to put a smile on my face when he's not cracking jokes. Da'Vine Joy Randolph was also terrific as Mary Lamb, the cafeteria administrator grieving the loss of her son, despite her arc feeling inconclusive. Finally, we have Dominic Sessa in his first film role as Angus Tully, whose family issues serve as part of the movie's soul. All I can say about him is that I was really impressed by his acting capabilities regarding his portrayal of the student.
I will also credit "The Holdovers" for its 1970s approach, not just for its authentic New England setting but also its presentation. Since the movie takes place in the 70s, Payne and the others thought it would be a great idea to have the film look and feel like it was made during that period. The marketing felt akin to the ones made in the 70s, which I thought was a gimmick to sell the product at first. However, that isn't the case. They actually followed through with this idea by making the movie look like it was made in the 1970s, regarding its grainy cinematography and sound editing. Heck, even the transitions and credits have that '70s vibe to make it a complete package. It may seem like a needless decoration for some people, but it does its job of resembling the aesthetic production design and providing some nostalgia regarding the art of cinema and its limitations.
Overall, "The Holdovers" doesn't hold back on delivering a bittersweet yet incredibly moving portrait of humanity amid the holiday season. It may seem like another comedy full of wacky situations involving a group of ill-mannered yet troubling people at first. But on the screen, it's a deep and rewarding reflection of tragedy and grief that's well-constructed by Alexander Payne, and it's better because of it. The lead actors were fantastic in their roles, Payne's direction was superb, and the screenplay delivered a thoughtful and refreshing take on its straightforward concept. The presentation and Mark Orton's score were also excellent for capturing the feel of watching a 1970s movie. It's not only an immensely heartfelt movie that'll likely gain "holiday classic" status in the future, but it's also one of the best films I've seen this year. If you love Payne's other works and holiday-related films, this film is worth watching, especially during the Christmas season.