“The Holdovers” is the latest film from director Alexander Payne and re-teams him with Paul Giamatti 19 years after their hit movie “Sideways.” The film takes place at Barton Academy, a New England preparatory school, in the winter of 1970. When Christmas break hits, most students return home, and the very few who don’t (the Holdovers) are left at the school under the watch of one unlucky instructor. This year, it is the pretentious and deeply frustrated history teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti) who receives the duty. When Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), Hunham’s sarcastic and rebellious student, is left behind for the break, the antagonistic pair learn just how similar they are… while launching vicious insults at each other.
I knew “The Holdovers” would be special when its opening credits sequence began with the line, “An Alexander Payne Movie.” Not “picture,” not even “film.” A movie. I know this sounds entirely inconsequential, but Payne’s use of the term “movie” is representative of how unpretentious and warm his filmography is. Payne makes movies for the audience, not just for himself. His films are delightfully character-based and packed full of emotion, wit, and humor. He makes the kind of movies we don’t get anymore, the kind that rejuvenated the film industry in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s why he is one of our finest filmmakers and why “The Holdovers” is one of the best movies of the year.
Payne brilliantly decided to give the film the appearance of a 1970s movie. The frame is consistently grainy, with occasional bursts of black or white specks that add to the life and realism of the film. The sound quality even reflects a ’70s film. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these techniques would feel flashy, unnecessary, and distracting. Under Payne’s smooth guidance, the grainy film and rough sound is utterly charming and transportive. “The Holdovers” really feels like a ’70s movie, and it’s all the better for it.
The performances are the heart of the movie. Paul Giamatti is impeccable at playing condescending curmudgeons and this is no exception. He balances that fine line of being frustrating but never annoying. He is immensely likable despite the character’s plethora of flaws. The humorous core to his performance is his face, specifically his eyes and cheeks. Hunham is written to have a lazy eye that becomes a motif in the film, adding to the aesthetic insecurities of the character. I have never seen an actor utilize their cheek muscles better than Giamatti does here. He is able to vibrate most of his face to amplify the comedy, most notably during one scene in the middle of the movie at a doctor’s office.
This is Dominic Sessa’s first film and it’s impossible to tell just by watching his performance. Sessa is incredible in this movie, able to fire hilarious and vicious banter so naturally. He completely holds his own against Giamatti and their chemistry is immensely palpable.
I haven’t mentioned the third lead of the film yet: Mary, the head chef of Barton’s cafeteria, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Her character is a deeply tragic one. She’s a mourning mother who just lost her son in the Vietnam War, but despite her anguish, she remains a strong-willed and kind figure. Randolph gives an incredible performance, playing the role with the proper subtlety of a woman storing her grief and with the warmth of a loving mother. She is the heart of the film.
The story, while one that we have seen a million times, remains gripping because of how well the characters, their arcs, and their interactions are written. It’s impossible not to root for them and fall in love with their belly-laugh-inducing banter. Watching Hunham and Angus bond is heartwarming but never cheesy or overwritten. This is a (mostly) incredible screenplay by David Hemingson, one that deserves an Oscar nomination.
I qualify that statement with “mostly” because the first act is noticeably inferior to the second and third acts. The first act is still decent, but it ultimately feels drawn out and trim-worthy. It wastes time by having multiple holdovers because all of them leave except for Angus. The other holdovers don’t really affect much of the story, and therefore feel inconsequential. I understand and agree with the filmmakers’ choice to place Angus alone with Hunham, but it could have been written better. The script should have made Angus the only holdover from the get-go or, preferably, make the other holdovers more important to the story. That said, I eventually stopped caring about the relative insignificance of the other holdovers because of how quickly I became invested in the relationship between Angus, Hunham, and Mary. I’m sure most viewers will feel the same.
“The Holdovers” truly is the movie we need right now. It has a rich, intelligent heart that’s absent from most movies today. We could all use an uplifting film, and Alexander Payne has brought us a great one.