The Holdovers (2023)
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: David Hemingson
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Andrew Garmon, Naheem Garcia, Stephen Thorne, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Juanita Pearl
Almost 20 years ago, Alexander Payne discovered that Paul Giamatti had a real knack for playing horrible people and somehow making them compelling and even sympathetic when they worked together on wine tasting comedy Sideways. It may have taken two decades for them to re-team, but The Holdovers proves that their particular creative spark is still very much there.
If you wanted to pitch this to a mainstream movie-going audience, you might say: what if the teacher from Dead Poets Society was a complete asshole? During Christmas of 1970, unpopular prep school classical history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is assigned the unenviable duty of looking after the holdovers, the boys unlucky enough to not have anywhere else to go over the holidays. But as the small group dwindles when better options for most of them come up, soon it is just Paul, kitchen manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and troubled 17 year-old contrarian Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) trying to make their less-than-desirable Christmas at least bearable.
From the use of period-accurate studio logos to the digital addition of film grain and audio crackle on the soundtrack over the opening credits, Payne is aiming to evoke a particular era of filmmaking from around the same time as The Holdovers is set. The vast majority of modern movies just aren’t paced like this anymore; this is very much a slow burn of a character piece where the closest thing we get to an action scene is a middle-aged man chasing a teenager up some stairs.
Paul Hunham is a wonderfully acerbic, mean-spirited creation, a man made an outcast by a lazy eye and a glandular problem, who has chosen to not make up for it in any way with his personality. This is the kind of guy who doesn’t tolerate anyone’s academic shortcomings, not even giving kids from rich donor families an easy ride much to the consternation of the Headmaster (Andrew Garman) which seems only partly out of integrity and more about power. He doesn’t make any extra effort to understand his students or their situations either, making his task of supervising them over a holiday all the crueller for everyone. In fact, he seems to take pleasure in making them feel small, at one point adding insult to injury by not just failing a kid but grading his paper an F+.
In films like Payne’s Sideways and especially Canadian dark comedy Barney’s Version, Giamatti has shown great skill at taking some truly terrible men on a gradual journey to becoming slightly less terrible. Nobody wants to be stuck at Barton Academy for Christmas, a place made even more miserable by the campus re-selling their Christmas tree and forcing the remaining residents to sleep in the infirmary to save on heating. Mary, who is mourning the loss of her son in combat, and Angus who feels abandoned by his mother flying off on honeymoon with his new stepdad, are both desperate for any kind of meaningful human connection but unfortunately have to settle for the human cactus that is Paul.
Payne’s films, from Election to The Descendants, are always wry and darkly ironic, exposing the absurdity of everyday situations and real people trying to manage at difficult points in their lives. Mary is nowhere near through her grieving process, while Angus is hiding a lot of trauma and knows this school is his last chance to avoid getting packed off into the military and Vietnam where he could very well meet the same untimely demise as Mary’s son. Paul is quick to expose the inadequacies of others but downplays how he himself has fallen short in his own life, returning to the same prep school he graduated from to teach to avoid taking any kind of risky personal or career decisions.
Eventually the film’s confined location and limited cast of characters opens out as our central trio’s dynamic evolves into something approaching affection, first going to a Christmas party hosted by Lydia (Carrie Preston), one of the few people who tolerates and perhaps even genuinely likes Paul, before embarking on an impromptu road trip to Boston. This final stretch of the film doesn’t feel quite as fully-formed as the lengthy time we spend at the school, and at a shade over two hours this is the point where the pacing could be tightened, but at the same time you wouldn’t want to sacrifice any of these character moments like when Mary and her younger pregnant sister (Juanita Pearl) get to be there for each other.
Filming in largely unchanged schools in bleak mid-winter Massachusetts, and with a sometimes jarring mixture of traditional church hymns, Christmas songs and 1960s pop music, the film has an authentic and deliberately uncomfortable feel about it. It’s one of the least Christmassy Christmas movies out there but it might find a place on a list of alternate bittersweet festive offerings along with the likes of Carol and Tangerine.
With The Holdovers, Alexander Payne has crafted another well-observed, warts-and-all examination of humanity in an unexpectedly inhospitable privileged setting. It is set in a world that demands exceptionalism but follows a trio of people who go against the grain and don’t really fit in with the outside world, having a subtle dig at society, class and unfair expectations in the process. It might not have a profound change on your life, but it’s sharp, heartfelt and funny, and boasts three of the best performances of the year.