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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

‘The Holdovers’ is a Loving Retread of Familiar Ground

IMDB
IMDB

Snow flurries, a cappella Christmas carols and dangerously homemade cherries jubilee make up “The Holdovers,” a refreshingly sincere comedy-drama that’s already picked up five Oscar nominations this award season. Set in New England in the winter of 1970, this latest film from Director Alexander Payne is intent on evoking both holiday spirit and nostalgia for a bygone era as it forges bonds between all-too-realistic characters. 

Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham, a classics teacher at an all-boys boarding school whose stringent standards and curmudgeonly disposition have made him deeply unpopular with students and faculty alike. As punishment for giving the son of an influential donor a failing grade, Paul is forced to spend his break supervising the “holdovers,” five students who have also found themselves stuck on campus for the holidays

Just as you’re gearing yourself up to root for this eclectic group of misfits, “The Holdovers” discards its ensemble cast in a rich parent ex machina, leaving student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) behind with only Paul and bereaved head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) for company. 

“The Holdovers” is a remarkable film debut for Sessa, who was plucked for the role from the drama club of one of the schools used as a filming location. His Angus is sharp-eyed and petulant but with a rough-edged sincerity that swiftly endears the viewer. Equally well-cast is Randolph as Mary, a grieving mother who has recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. Her movement through each scene is incredibly deliberate, with the kind of quiet devastation reserved for those who know the world has ended but the earth is still turning. 

Though the entire main trio turns out strong performances, it is Giamatti who fully sells you on the premise. Paul should be a thoroughly unpleasant man for the viewer to spend two hours with, from his resentful attitude and complete inability to read a room to his medley of medical conditions such as excessive sweating and a persistent smell of fish. Even his most cutting insults are dripping with academic pretension, with his students reprimanded as “snarling Visigoths” and “lazy, vulgar, rancid little philistines.”

Yet Paul as a character feels so lived-in and genuine that it’s hard to avoid being drawn in. He may not be all that likable, but his wit is biting and his interactions with other characters beg to be cracked wide open and have their underlying motivations revealed. 

By process of elimination, Angus is the character tasked with doing the cracking. Though he clashes with Paul over the latter’s authoritarian tendencies, his consistently high grades reveal that despite referring to him as a “hormonal vulgarian,” Paul harbors a grudging admiration for his student’s intellect.

You’ve seen this dynamic play out before. Payne is by no means the first director to stick a gifted but troubled youngster in a room with a stubborn academic who has to convince them of their potential by bonding over unexpected parallels in life experience. After the first fifteen minutes, you have a pretty good idea of where these character arcs are going to land.

But what sets “The Holdovers” apart is its embrace of uncertainty. Angus, Paul and Mary are all profoundly lonely people whose dissatisfaction pushes them to outbursts and excess, and the narrative refuses to solve their problems neatly. The character flaws they start with stick with them through the end of the movie, and they do not grow as people so much as they learn to start healing the wounds they have left to fester.

“The Holdovers” is not always gripping, and the story does drag a bit near the middle. That being said, what the film lacks in originality it makes up for in humor and heart. With stirring performances and just the right amount of bittersweetness, it is easy to imagine “The Holdovers” joining the annual holiday movie lineup for years to come.

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