Review | The Holdovers | 2023

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Alexander Payne has received a fair amount of criticism for what some perceive as a certain smugness or a condescension toward his characters. It's a criticism I've never really agreed with, as I've always found even his most sardonic films to have a certain warmth toward even the most moribund characters. From the lonely Schmidt in About Schmidt to sad sack Miles in Sideways to curmudgeonly Woody in Nebraska, there always seems to be a kind of empathy toward his characters that seems to come from a place of love rather than disdain. 

His latest film, The Holdovers, almost seems like a direct rebuke of those criticisms, as it contains perhaps his most directly warmhearted and even sentimental evocation of loneliness and disaffection yet. Reuniting with his Sideways star Paul Giamatti, Payne introduces us to Paul Hunham (Giamatti), an imperious professor at a prestigious boarding school for boys, most of them from wealthy families on track to for Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale. Hunham has little love for his students, most of whom he views as privileged cretins who couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted them two of the letters. 

Paul's misery is compounded when he is assigned to remain at the school for the duration of winter break with the "holdovers," the students who are unable to return home for the holidays. Among the motley crew is Angus (Dominic Sessa), a disaffected boy whose penchant for mouthing off earned him the ire of his entire class when Paul revoked their ability to make up a particularly disastrous exam and assigned them extra work over the break. To Paul, Angus is just another directionless philistine with no future, destined for a free ride through life. But over the course of the break, it soon becomes clear that this boy's life isn't the life of privilege he imagined, and the two come to understand each other's loneliness and pain in ways neither could have predicted.

The structure of The Holdovers is certainly a familiar, but Payne dons it like a warm, well loved coat. The "inspirational teacher" movie is a well worn subgenre, from Goodbye Mr. Chips to Conrack to Dead Poets Society to Stand and Deliver to Mr. Hollands Opus, the territory has certainly been extensively covered over the decades. But Payne uses that to his advantage. The holiday setting (gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Eigil Bryld), coupled with the strong performances of Giamatti and Sessa, along with Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the school's mourning cook, turn the film's familiar setting into a kind of loving embrace. The melancholic sense of loneliness that hangs over the film feels like ice slowly melting next to a warm fire, with Payne's acerbic sensibilities giving way to something disarmingly wistful and tinged with a bittersweet sense of sadness and hope. There are plenty of films this year that feel more groundbreaking or that push the envelope of film form - but The Holdovers feels like a timely treat, an equally caustic and earnest love letter to all those who feel left behind at the holidays.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE HOLDOVERS | Directed by Alexander Payne | Stars Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner | Rated R for language, some drug use and brief sexual material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.


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