From the opening title cards and credits of Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Holdovers, he instantly transports us back in time by presenting a film that is not only set in the 1970s, but feels like it is a lost gem from cinema’s greatest era of filmmaking. Shot on and presented on 35mm, and paying massive homage to the great directors before him like Robert Altman and Hal Ashby within the opening frames and the construction of his main characters, Payne drop us into a quiet New England town covered in blankets of snow, preparing for the upcoming holiday season in the winter of 1970. Inside this town lies an elite, all boys prep school that harbors the brightest young men whose parents can afford them the privilege to attend such an institution. This makes them arrogant, smug little rich boys who know that no matter how bad they do in their studies, the troubles of the outside world won’t affect them letter to an ivy league school. But the one roadblock in these boys getting away with murder lies in the hands of the man who has been at the school for decades teaching Ancient Civilizations with an iron fist, Mr. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti).
Mr. Hunham is a cranky curmudgeon, who doesn’t much care for people, including many of his fellow teachers on the staff and a considerable amount of the boys on campus. He likes being alone and would rather sit in his room on campus, listening to classical music and ripping the latest batch of essay papers to shreds with his red ink pen with a tall glass of Jim Beam. His approaches to life are very old school, thus he lacks sympathy or the proper evolution and understanding of the era he is living in. But in his mind, he is trying to provide a small ounce of discipline to these young boys before they run off to rule the world someday. Therefore, when another teacher backs out of his responsibilities to stay on campus during the holiday break to watch over the school and take care of the remaining boys who aren’t going home (aka the holdovers), Mr. Hunham is the one holding the short straw as he has no family or friends, making him the perfect candidate to stay and watch over the boys. In reuniting with Payne for the first time since their incredible work on Sideways, Giamatti delivers a hilarious, nuanced performance of a man who simply wants to be left alone to just read his books about the world that he is scared of branching out and exploring because his job and this school is all he knows.
The group of holdovers for the holidays consists of five boys, most notably Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), one of Mr. Hunham’s students. Angus is a very bright young man and the only one not to get a failing grade on the midterm exams Mr. Hunham. But he is a troublemaker and has bouts of anger stemming from the loss of his father and his mother marrying quickly to someone who doesn’t like him. In getting to understand Angus over the course of the film, we find out that he has been kicked out of three other schools and that if he is kicked out one more time, he is going to be going to military school. His excitement for going home for the holidays is quickly ruined when he receives a call from his mother that she is going on her long delayed honeymoon and won’t be picking up Angus till spring break. On hearing this news, Angus is devastated, and is the start of a showcase for one of the best newcomer performances of the decade so far. Sessa, a non-actor found by Payne at the school the film is set in before shooting began, is able to take on a seasoned actor like Giamatti in every scene they are in and steal every moment he is on screen.
Angus, along with the other boys, are forced to go through Mr. Hunham’s holiday plans for the boys that consists of early morning exercise in the snow, studying for school work they will be doing when they return from break, and not much fun or holiday spirit attached. After a couple of days, the boys completely had it with their tough as nails teacher, but are rescued from his wrath as one of the boy’s wealthy parents comes to pick up his son, and with the permission of the other parents, are able to leave on a helicopter for a skiing trip for the remained of the break. But because his mother is unreachable, Angus is the sole remaining member of the holdovers and that’s when the movie kicks into another gear as Angus and Mr. Hunham go one one-on-one in trying to make each other’s lives a living hell over the course of a couple of days of the remainder of their break. Giamatti and Sessa have fantastic chemistry throughout the film and it shines in the latter part of the film when it is just the two of them going back and forth at each other with mature dialogue from screenwriter David Hemingson.
In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Angus calls a hotel in the area, trying to escape the school and when Mr. Hunham figures out what he is doing, the two go chasing each other around on an endless chase that ends with Angus breaking his arm. By lying about how Angus broke his arm so they both don’t get in trouble, the two start slowly forming a bond, that leads an incredible chuck of the film where the cranky teacher and his naive student start to let their guard down with one enough on a Christmas gift designated as a field trip to Boston. By doing this, the two actors allow these two misunderstood, lonely people to find a sense of connection that they are not only longing for, but desperately need. A pivotal scene between Mr. Hunham and Angus at a restaurant demonstrates the film’s central message that while we fear repeating the mistakes of the past, whether with our families or within our world, we have the power to change all of that if we can find the belief in one’s self to do that. When this conversation finishes, you know this teacher/student relationship has grown into something neither expected, and it’s what makes the film so surprisingly tender and impactful overall.
Mr. Hunham has only one other person to turn to during this break, and that is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook who decided to work the holidays after the tragic death of her son in the Vietnam War. Despite her internal sadness, Mary tries to keep a positive attitude about life, especially when around Mr. Hunham whose attitude on life is always down, but she has no problem putting her colleague in his place, especially when she sees that he is being too hard on Angus during the holidays. Randolph’s performance is impeccable, delivering a warmth to the story that is much needed to keep the film’s tone balanced. In doing this, she also has moments of real emotional levity as she is still grieving the loss of her son, even breaking down at a Christmas party. It is the best work of Randolph’s career and by the end of the film, she is able to provide Mary some closure to the tragedy of her son and show us that this woman will survive past the loss of the only thing that really mattered to her in this whole world.
Payne, who hasn’t made a film in six years, goes back to basics after the mixed results that was Downsizing, and delivers his best film since Sideways. The film’s first trailer gives you pretty much the entire meat of the story that is at play here, but what is missing is The Holdovers surprise emotional hold is has one you from the opening frame of snow falling down to the final frame of school as the break has ended and the snow is starting to melt, signaling new beginnings for our three protagonists. With confident direction, three outstanding performances, and a first rate screenplay, this is a rare crowd-pleaser that works on every level and doesn’t feel manipulative at all once it starts pulling on your heartstrings.
This review is from the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. Focus Features will release The Holdovers on November 10.
Photo: Seacia Pavao / FOCUS FEATURES