When winter creeps in and the days grow shorter, we gather close together for light and warmth. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a movie that honors this primal instinct and helps clarify the importance of human connection during our darkest days. Like most of Payne’s other films, this one starts with characters who are sarcastic and snipe at one another but slowly reach a better understanding of each other through hard-fought vulnerability. Few in the business are better at this sort of character transition than Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne from 2004’s Sideways. In one of his best performances in years, Giamatti plays a stern instructor who’s so easy to hate that you have to imagine he has a heck of a redemption arc in him. Yes, this is a film that plays in some familiar narrative territory but it does so wonderfully.
It’s 1970 at the New England prep school Barton Academy and almost all of the kids are getting ready to head home for Christmas break. The few that remain — the “holdovers” — are those whose parents are planning to be out of town for holiday or have some other reason they can’t host their children over break. One such student is Angus (Dominic Sessa, in his first film role), a troubled teen who recently lost his father and gets the news that his stepparents have stepped away from the holidays, leaving him out in the cold. Similarly sideswiped is Paul (Giamatti), a history teacher who gets roped into supervising the holdovers after another professor comes up with a bogus excuse at the last minute. He’ll at least have some help with the school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) present but besides that, he’s stuck with a group of kids who take exception to his strict demeanor.
The movie’s first act is its weakest, spending a little too much time with a group of ill-defined students who soon flee the picture, but The Holdovers really hits its stride when it’s down to Paul, Angus, and Mary. This is a terrific trio of performances, filled with empathy and humanity, upon which the entire film can cast its foundation. As good as Giamatti is, Sessa and Randolph play up to his level and similarly put in outstanding work. Sessa takes a character we’ve seen before — a snot-nosed punk who can’t stay out of trouble — and somehow makes him easy to love and care about as the story progresses. Randolph plays the most easy-going of the three main characters but also the one who has endured a terrible tragedy — the death of her son in Vietnam — that she’s trying to overcome. Even if the script was crummy, these performances would still shine.
Thankfully, the adroit screenplay from David Hemingson is far from crummy and serves up a cornucopia of both pithy one-liners and jewels of character insight. Paul is one of those obnoxious academics who is always trying to educate people who aren’t in the mood or mindset for a lesson, as when he (fittingly) lectures the kids about the origin of the word “punitive” over lunch. He repeats an adage equating life to a henhouse ladder that speaks to his worldview and the phrase “entre nous” is spoken several times between Paul and Angus, first played as a laugh line but gaining a momentum of meaning upon each repetition. Being the most good-natured of the three, Mary has little ways of cutting through the cynicism of her two male boarders. An episode of The Newlywed Game inspires conversation and when Paul shuts down his own hypothetical scenario of happiness, she laments, “you can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?”
Payne goes all-in on the early 70s aesthetic, filling the frame with a thousand shades of brown and beige while adding the occasional pop and click — replicating a spinning record — to the sound design. The excellent soundtrack includes usual suspects from Badfinger to Cat Stevens but also sports anachronistic selections from modern acts Damien Jurado and Khruangbin atop a menagerie of Christmas hits. Around the holidays, people look for movies like The Holdovers that not only take place around Christmas but capture what it feels like to spend more time indoors with people we aren’t near the rest of the year. Without being cloyingly sentimental, it’s a film that gives us hope that we can relate with each other not just during the cold months but the whole year through.
Score – 4/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Marvels, the latest MCU movie starring Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris continuing the story of Captain Marvel as she gets her powers with those of two other superwomen, forcing them to work together to save the universe.
Also coming to theaters is Journey To Bethlehem, a Christmas musical starring Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim that weaves classic Christmas melodies with humor, faith, and new pop songs in a retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
Streaming on Netflix is The Killer, an action thriller starring Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton following an assassin who battles his employers, and himself, on an international manhunt he insists isn’t personal.
Review reprinted by permission of Whatzup