THE HOLDOVERS | USA | 2023 | 133m | English
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Barton men don’t lie. This is just one of the many rules Professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti) takes much too seriously as he hands out poor grades at an elite boarding school in 1971. As he dismisses the politics that come along with educating the children of people in high places, he’s punished by the headmaster who gives him a most undesirable assignment for the winter break: to stay at the school and supervise the students who are unable to go home.
Hunham resolves to have the students suffer with him, forcing them to start studying next semester’s curriculum ahead of time. Among them, 15-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa), bright but belligerent, makes a ruckus. Teacher and student become foes, antagonizing one another and tiring themselves out, as Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cafeteria manager, observes from the sidelines, herself alone after recently losing her son in the Vietnam War. As the petulant pair succumb to the depressing truth that they’ve got little else but each other this holiday season, Professor Hunham starts to soften up and they begin to see themselves in one another.
Giamatti gives a career-high performance as the risible teacher who delights in doling out punishment, while newcomer Sessa makes an immediate name for himself, revealing layers of complexity to his character’s rebellious nature. With The Holdovers, director Alexander Payne (Downsizing, TIFF ’17) makes a delicate point about how a first impression never tells the whole truth and shows that the pains and tragedies that feel specific to us actually make us a lot more alike than unalike.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 4.5 out of 5
The Holdovers is a beautiful, hilarious and ultimately poignant experience set during the holiday season, that under the excellent direction of Alexander Payne and featuring some of the best performances of the entire year, earns the film the right to become a timeless classic that viewers will no doubt revisit year after year.
It has been six years since acclaimed director Alexander Payne has released a new film, and his latest film is without a doubt one of his best films to date, and my personal favourite of his. The film sees Payne reunite with Paul Giamatti for the first time since 2004’s Sideways, but beyond that it is a new Christmas film for audiences to enjoy. Unlike the mass amount of Christmas films that are released today, which are either of the Hallmark variety, horror comedy genre, or featuring Santa or many of the typical Christmas tropes, The Holdovers is a different type of holiday film. It uses the holiday setting to explore deeply personal stories of its characters that takes audiences on an emotional journey over the course of the film that they won’t soon forget.
After finding himself with the task of supervising the students at his remote prep school who are not returning home for the holiday season, cranky history professor Paul Hunham finds himself at odds with one rebellious student, Agnus Tully. However, over the course of the holiday season, Paul, Agnus and the manager of the school’s cafeteria Mary, who is mourning the recent loss of her son, strike up a friendship that helps each of them through the holiday season.
Without question, The Holdovers features some of the finest performances of the entire year. Giamatti is nothing short as sensational as Paul Hunham. He never misses a comedic beat or emotional outburst of his character, generating some truly wonderful laughs throughout the film. While being rough around the edges, Giamatti makes Paul feel warm and welcoming, truly allowing his character to pop off the screen against the winter backdrop. Though it is the quiet, devastating, selfless aspect of Paul’s personality that Giamatti captures so beautifully in his performance that makes you instantly fall in love with his character. There is no doubt that Giamatti’s performance is one of the best lead performances of the year, and one that will be earning lots of well-deserved critical acclaim come this awards season. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is nothing short of exceptional as Mary, as she works through Mary’s grief over the loss of her son. For an actress known for her comedic talents, Randolph stuns with the dramatic depth to her performance. The raw heartbreak she captures in Mary is enough to move you to tears with a single look from her, and when she expresses it in words, it’s impossible not to be completely in love with her performance. On top of that, Randolph brings her signature comedic abilities to the role, creating one of the most endearing original characters and best supporting performances of the year.
Opposite two powerhouse performances from Giamatti and Randolph is newcomer Dominic Sessa, and it truly is a magnificent screen debut by him. Holding your ground against Giamatti and Randolph is no easy task, but Sessa makes it look like child's play. As Angus, Sessa captures the rebellious yet highly intelligent young spirit that will have you grinning as he pushes the boundaries of Paul Hunham’s rules. At the same time, Sessa internalizes Angus’s pain of being abandoned by his mother and her new husband for the holiday season, while coping with the complex departure of his father from his life, displaying it all through the emotional expressions on his face. It’s an impressive range for a first-time performance, that when combined with Giamatti and Randolph on screen, makes for an unstoppable trio of performances to lead this film.
At the centre of the film is an incredible screenplay from David Hemingson that spins a truly moving story that will instantly win audiences over. In one moment, Hemingson will have you laughing at the childish and humorous antics of the boys stuck at the boarding school over the holiday, or Paul Hunham’s strict supervision of the young boys. It's a wholesome comedy that is fun for all to enjoy, but within the same scene, Hemingson switches to a deep and cathartic story about the struggles of the three main characters. It’s a mixture of a coming of age story, dealing with grief and loss, and coming to terms with the cards life has dealt you that will strike an emotional chord with audiences. You will be feeling the heartwarming moments, while choking back tears in the more emotional scenes of the film, resulting in a film that encompasses all the emotions on the spectrum. It’s one of the best original screenplays of the year that will no doubt become a major contender during awards season.
Being set in the early 1970s, the aesthetics of the film are important to capture the time period in which this story unfolds. Payne’s direction and shooting the movie on film stock gives a warmth and old school visual style to the film, that combined with the classic studio logos and R-rating MPAA card at the opening of the film, makes this film feel like it was made during the time era it was set in. The costumes and locations in the film where the film was shot recreate the style of the 1970s with an authentic feel that captures what a small town outside of Boston would have looked like, not the grand vision Hollywood would attribute to the time period. Though, it is the music for the film that truly captures the 70s vibe with classic Christmas songs, a sentimental and joyful musical score from Mark Orton, and a great selection of 70s popular music including Cat Stevens’s “The Wind” that will have you tearing up as it is beautifully used in the film.
While we see an abundance of holiday films released every year, there has not been one as magnificent as The Holdovers in quite some time. There is no hesitation in labeling The Holdovers as one of the best films of the year, as it truly is, delivering a cinematic experience that calls back to the film of yesteryear that is the definition of a heartwarming crowd pleaser for all to enjoy. Capturing laughter, joy, a profound emotional depth, and an unforgettable school-based drama that we have not seen the likes of since Dead Poets Society, Alexander Payne has delivered a new holiday classic with The Holdovers that will warm your heart and tells an unforgettable story, a story that is only elevated by a trio of powerhouse and awards worthy performances from Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa!