The Holdovers (TIFF) Review

Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a strong return to form from the director that plays like a lost film from the 1970s.

PLOT: At an elite prep school in 1970, the students prepare to leave for their Christmas holidays, but a handful cannot be with their families. To their dismay, they’re left in charge of the much-disliked teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti). When all of the boys are given a last-minute reprieve by one of their fathers and are whisked away on a ski trip, Hunham is left behind for the holidays with the one kid, Angus (Dominic Sessa), who can’t get permission to go, along with the school’s cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

REVIEW: Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a very welcome return to form for the director. Playing out like a lost film from the early seventies, complete with a simulated 35mm feel to the lensing (with the wear and team of a film print), it’s a low-key but deeply moving character drama with some hilariously profane dialogue.

At its heart, it’s a three-hander character study of three broken people forced to become a temporary, makeshift family for the holidays. For Giamatti, who spent much of the last decade fronting the cable show Billions, it’s a reminder that he’s one of the best character actors out there. Some will compare the rumpled Paul Hunham to the sad sack teacher he played in Sideways, but the similarities are mostly surface-level. Despite his lazy eye and a condition that makes him smell like fish and has made him a bit of a loner, Hunham isn’t a sad sack and hasn’t an ounce of self-pity. He’s content with his lot in life, and while he’s brutal with the students, it’s more that he resents the way his blue-blood wards feel so entitled that they can’t take the curriculum seriously. But, he’s not actually a mean person, with him having a lot of empathy for the school’s black cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son had a place at the school thanks to her employment but was recently killed in Vietnam. 

Giamatti is superb here, with his lacerating putdowns destined to become classics. He’s equaled by Randolph, who delivers a performance that seems sure to make her a major contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (after nearly nabbing a nod for Dolemite is My Name). She breaks your heart by doing a stunning job of evoking the depths of a mother’s grief. She underplays the role brilliantly and feels natural, grounding the film with a real sense of heart early on, as the film initially seems like a comedy but proves to be more profound than that. 

Dominic Sessa is a real find as the main kid, Angus, whose mom and stepdad would rather go on vacation alone than take him along. He does an excellent job of balancing the character’s selfish streak and impetuousness while giving him a sense of empathy that makes you invest in him early on. Most importantly, his chemistry with Giamatti is superb, with the two playing off each other in a way that makes this an unexpectedly strong buddy comedy. 

The supporting cast is peppered with solid turns, including Carrie Preston (from True Blood), the school receptionist who tries to befriend Hunham, inviting them all to a disastrous Christmas party. At the same time, Brady Hepner is appropriately loathsome as the school’s biggest blue-blood, a casually racist bully. 

One noteworthy thing about The Holdovers is how well it depicts the era, with it truly feeling like a movie someone like Hal Ashby might have made in that period. The seventies setting isn’t hokey, and the needle-drops aren’t overdone. You really get a feel for the world Paul, Mary, and Angus find themselves in, especially once the movie opens up and takes them on an unexpected trip outside the school.

Undoubtedly, The Holdovers will rank highly for me on my list of the best films of the year. Outside of Oppenheimer, I can’t remember being as instantly absorbed with a movie as I was with this one over the course of 2023. I think for many of us, this will be destined to become a future comfort movie, and I know I’ll return to a lot in the years to come. 

the holdovers review


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