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'The Holdovers' Review

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September 12, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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The Holdovers had its international premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on October 27.

Between its retro production titles, popping sound, dissolved editing, and grainy cinematography, Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is not just a film that is set in 1970, it looks and feels like it was made during that time. The Omaha-born writer/director (only directing in this outing) returns from a six-year hiatus after the disappointing Downsizing, delivering one of his best films through a great story and equally great characters.

The titular band of misfits at Barton Academy are those that have been left behind during the two-week holiday break. They’re the ones who can’t go home to their families, either because they don’t have one or they’re not welcome. The curmudgeonly history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) presides over them. He’s been handed this shit detail because none of the other teachers like him (the students share that sentiment), and because he’s also all alone. The worst of his troublemaking leftovers is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). He has a supernatural talent for getting into trouble and pushing Paul’s buttons. But he’s also a very gifted student, consistently getting the top score in class, a nearly impossible feat due to the rigors of the course and Paul’s tortuous teaching style. 

Also left with Paul and Angus is the school’s cook Mary. She’s decided to stay put to be with the memory of her son, as he was enrolled in the school before being drafted and killed in Vietnam a few months back. These three unlikely companions form a holiday family, going on misadventures together and learning something about each other and themselves.

Nothing about writer David Hemingson’s past indicated that he would make such a bitingly funny and introspective script, let alone on the first try, at least in the realm of feature films. He’s written for a couple of television shows, none too noteworthy except for the shortlived Kitchen Confidential starring pre-fame Bradley Cooper. Paul’s insulting Latin phrases and general disregard for his students’ confidence puts up a tough exterior, one that will take a large tool and persistence to crack. Giamatti is masterful with his barbs, getting under your skin with ease as you consistently plead “Why can’t you just be nice?” Yet he’s always likable, with the later sections of the movie interestingly pulling back the layers of his past.

Much of that later warmth also comes from Sessa and Randolph’s performances. Sessa delivers an astounding debut performance, overcoming many of the rookie tropes. The pain of Randolph’s character is felt in every scene, but she refuses to make it her whole personality. She’s hilarious when she checks Giamatti’s callousness, and provides the warmth Angus needs at this difficult time. I expect and fully support Oscar campaigns for each of these performers. 

Through his directorial choices, Payne makes The Holdovers into a Christmas classic for adults. The cinematography glows like a warm fire and the relaxed pacing allows these characters to breathe. This is a melancholic film, with Payne knowing that the holidays are not full of yuletide cheer for everyone. But there are still seasons greetings to be had, just enough to make you want to be a better person and stay close to those that matter most. What more could you ask for in times like these?

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