A+ performances all round in The Holdovers

Director: Alexander Payne Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randol Running Time: 142 minutes

“Life is like a henhouse ladder: shitty & short.”

This is just some of the sage wisdom that sprouts from Mr. Hunham, the middle-aged classics teacher at the heart of Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. Mr. Hunham – played expertly by Paul Giamatti – is that one teacher we have all endured at some point in our lives: one so stern & strict that their ambitions to take up this noble profession were almost certainly a result of their failure to become a dictator. Seemingly the only time Mr. Hunham smiles is when he is handing out bad grades to his students or describing the next test that awaits them upon their immediate return from Christmas break. He has a glass eye, smells alarmingly of fish and shuns each & every offer to humanise himself from both student & staff alike.

And yet, there is undoubtedly more to Mr. Hunham than he would care to admit: a richness of spirit that extends to those in need; a sense of right & wrong that he passes to his students in his own curmudgeonly way; and a certain brilliance in the classes he teaches. He is the textbook definition of that teacher you hated in school but grew up to respect for the life lessons he passed down. And it is exactly this type of complicated individual that is the focus of The Holdovers: a movie about the unexpected relationships that form between lost souls & the humanity at the core of some of life’s bristliest characters.

Set on a snowy December in 1970s New England, The Holdovers follows Mr. Hunham (Giamatti) as he is forced to remain on campus over the Christmas holidays to chaperone students whose parents have not collected them. As the cold days go by, Mr. Hunham begrudgingly forms an unlikely bond with gifted but troubled student Angus Tully (Sessa) and Mary Lamb, the school’s head chef who is recovering from the loss of her son in the Vietnam War (Joy Randolph).

Despite being firmly set in the 1970s, there is a timelessness to The Holdovers that makes it accessible to audiences today. Director Alexander Payne & screenwriter David Hemingson take time to peel back the folds of each character, ensuring we aren’t just watching a story that is true to this particular time & place but are, instead, sitting with characters whose basic struggles in life ring true to anyone with a heart big enough to welcome them. The film does have a lot to say about the events impacting society in that period, however. Hunham relishes any chance he can get to remind his pampered students that, by virtue of their connections, their lives are unlikely to ever be put in the way of danger in the same way those who stem from less-privileged backgrounds are.

There’s an easier way to tell this story that would have completely avoided commentary of this nature: Hemingson’s script could easily have been bought by Disney or Hallmark and bastardised into the type of schmaltzy holiday fare we’ve seen numerous times over the years. But with Payne’s deft hands & cynical gaze, The Holdovers is thankfully far more of a Hal Ashby picture than a Garry Marshall one, opting to rightly take punts at the period with the same anti-establishment zeal that made Ashby’s films so great. 

As the awards season rolls on, The Holdovers is garnering a lot of praise for its 3 lead performances, as well it should be. Giamatti’s Mr. Hunham is tremendous from start to finish: the humanity with which he imbues this prickly character is worthy of all the awards praise being sent his way. There’s something truly exciting about watching an established character actor like Giamatti slip into a leading role with such ease, all without losing that same screen presence that we know & love. He’s given a great sparring partner in newcomer Dominic Sessa who (and this is a compliment…) nails the whiny, moody teenager who would rather be anywhere else in the world than with the tyrannical Mr. Hunham.

Finally, Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s portrayal of a grieving mother attempting to live with the loss of her son to the Vietnam War is one of the most impressive of 2023. Displaying a more impenetrable façade than Mr. Hunham’s, Mary Lamb is a character that requires a restrained, natural performance and one that doesn’t indulge the melodrama that other actors would gravitate to. Randolph understands that what she doesn’t show on screen is equally as important as what she does and her performance is all the better for that. 

With as many feathers in its cap as The Holdovers boasts, it is easy to ignore what doesn’t work so well. But, needless to say (especially if you’ve skipped ahead to the star rating at the end of this review…), there are faults that restrict it from being a truly great film. Payne’s usual cynicism is dialled down here, but there are moments where it bleeds through in the most obvious & heavy-handed of ways: in particular a party scene where ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ is heard playing over the sobs of one of our characters. There are whole scenes that feel unnecessary and ultimately slow down the movie from reaching its satisfying end. However, with performances this good, The Holdovers is rarely an imposition at 2:15hrs.  

Ultimately, The Holdovers is a super easy & fun watch that boasts three incredible performances. It is also likely an interesting trip down memory lane for anyone looking to revisit those same teachers that boiled your blood as a kid, but have garnered your respect as the years roll on.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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