By: Jeff Ching
I’ll get right to it without any literary foreplay: The Holdovers is one of the best movies of the year.
When it comes to making dramedies about deeply wounded characters, Alexander Payne may be one of the best filmmakers working today. He’ll often use a mix of witty dialogue and dark comedy, and he won’t shy away from lowbrow humour either. The Holdovers is very much vintage Alexander Payne. Hell, he even got the band back together, working with Sideways‘ actor Paul Giamatti for the first time in nearly 20 years.
With the mention of Sideways, I loved The Holdovers for many of the same reasons I loved Sideways. However, The Holdovers is the better movie. Both films are hilarious, but I don’t remember Sideways being the tear-jerker that The Holdovers was. I hate the, “not one dry eye” phrase, because what kind of psycho is really closely inspecting every single person to see if they’re crying or not, right? But, by the ending, it was genuinely hard to hold back the tears. I hope I’m not making you think you’re heading into a tragedy with Payne’s latest. If you’re experienced with Payne’s work, you’ll figure out its uplifting angle – despite the rough roads ahead for the characters, they’ll be fine.
Set in the 1970s at a boarding prep school in Massachusetts, Christmas break has come but there’s a select few students that are stuck at boarding school because their parents have their reasons. This clan is referred to as “the holdovers”. Tasked with having to give up his Christmas break to look after the students is Mr. Paul Hunham (Giamatti), the overly strict, grumpy teacher. Our introduction to Hunham is him grading papers, shaking his head, saying “Philistine!” at every essay that he reads. He whistles “Flight of the Valkyries”, while handing back F’s and D’s to his shocked classroom.
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah. That was very obvious.”
“I can’t fail this class!”
“Oh, don’t sell yourself short. I truly believe that you can.”
What a perfect guy to be stuck with over the Christmas holiday.
At first, The Holdovers feels like Alexander Payne’s take on the teen movie classic The Breakfast Club. The student-teacher dynamic is fun but, before you can get comfortable with those characters, a helicopter arrives to pick up 3 of the students to go home for Christmas Eve. Yes, the people at this prep school have very well-off parents. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is the one student who is left behind, and he just so happens to be the most rebellious troublemaker within his peers – you can imagine how thrilled Mr. Paul Hunham is with this development. Also in this mix is the school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who lost her son to the Vietnam War. She does her best to move on and just do her job. Despite the unimageable pain, her presence really helps the dynamic between Mr. Paul Hunham and Angus.
Movies similar to The Holdovers, that also feature two opposing forces who learn more about each other, tend to front-load the comedy when the characters dislike each other. But as they find common ground, the comedy dies down and the schmaltz increases. In this case, however, The Holdovers maintains its comedy from beginning to end. The movie takes its time building the primary relationship, making the chemistry between Hunham and Tully feel organic and realistic. Despite their differences, they’re all lonely and ultimately needed an interaction like this in their lives. Angus gets more backstory as we learn the sad truth about his past and his relationship with his dad. We never really learn why Paul Hunham is the grump that he is today but, on the other hand, the audience doesn’t really need to know why.
Mainstream Hollywood films are often guilty of being emotionally manipulative and heavy-handed. Truly skilled directors shouldn’t need overly dramatic music and close-ups of characters crying. On the other extreme, directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach seem like they hate this portrayal so much that they often take a cynical, detached approach, holding the audience at arm’s length. The problem is that the audience doesn’t empathize with the characters and, therefore, it’s hard to feel any emotion for most of their work. Alexander Payne finds the perfect balance in between the two extremes. The reason why the ending sticks with the audience, and how it elevates The Holdovers to a full-fledged masterpiece, is because it doesn’t require a completely tragic event to make movie goers weepy.
Along with the great script and direction, the performances are top notch across the board. I can’t picture any other actor being a better fit for Paul Hunham than Paul Giamatti. Dominic Sessa, making his debut with a refreshing teenage performance, absolutely holds his own with every scene he has with Giamatti. I’m not familiar with Da’Vine Joy Randolph, but I’ll be looking out for her in the future – she’s arguably the heart of the movie. All three leads should be in the running for an Oscar nomination.
Despite some heavy dramatic material, The Holdovers is a delightful and beautiful movie about friendship. Friendships can come in all forms at a truly pivotal moment in your life. All three characters likely don’t have an easy road ahead, but you get the feeling that they’re all better off due to this specific Christmas they spent together. Movie goers who are tired of cheesy Christmas flicks, or re-watching George Bailey take way too long to figure out what the angel is trying to show him, The Holdovers is a new Christmas classic; cutting through the run-of-the-mill Hallmark nonsense, and still giving you the warm fuzzies inside.
Final rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Read more of Jeff Ching’s thoughts on film at The Ching of Comedy’s blog.