The Holdovers


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Holdovers
"An old school slice of comfort and joy for the cold season." | Photo: Courtesy of Thessaloniki Film Festival

The festive season is a time of mixed emotions for many people. While some are enjoying the unbridled thrill of an unexpected kiss beneath the mistletoe, others are feeling the sharpness of loss more acutely as the celebrations draw near. Alexander Payne’s latest comedy drama, set across the Christmas period, sees David Hemingson’s script explore all of this and more with a deft hand. They employ a character-driven structure that is full of surprises but also channels traditional, even Dickensian, themes, although the Scrooges here may not be quite who they first appear to be. The result is an old school slice of comfort and joy for the cold season, although it’s inexplicably getting a January release in the UK.

1970 is drawing to a close and so is the school term at Barton Academy boarding school in Massachusetts. The whole enterprise feels as though it has been plucked like a time capsule from the period thanks to canny opening trimmings using the US classification style of the period and studio logos that have been given a retro makeover (I gather that the UK print has been given similarly retro BBFC branding). The era is so perfectly rendered, that when the Labi Sifrre and Yusuf Islam needle drops arrive it’s as though we’ve been expecting them with the certainty that a five-year-old expects Santa.

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The snow is falling and the camera gently drifts around the various worlds that rub against each other in the school. In an archetypal sea of academic clutter, we meet Paul Giamatti’s “wall-eyed”, whisky laced and curmudgeonly classics professor Paul Hunham. Elsewhere, we see the kids are the mixture of everything from the poor to the posh, as some, revelling in their privilege, prepare to head home while others are soon to be hitting the slopes and the beach. Meanwhile, the season for school cook Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) comes wrapped in grief since her son, a former pupil at the school - his education her reason for taking the job - has been killed serving his country in Vietnam. Military service is just one of the things that underlines the rich kids’ ability to be more equal than others as they can sail straight on to college, whereas Mary’s son needed to sign up to earn the cash to go.

Payne takes his time with this set-up, hanging out in Hunham’s classroom as he accuses his students of being philistines while handing out grades that are mostly far from glowing. Among those in his class is cocky older teen Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, a lovely mix of teenage gaucheness and acutely felt emotion in his debut role). His crowing about his St Kitts’ trip neatly sets him up for a fall as he discovers his mother and her new husband have other plans. This means he is joining a small group of “holdovers” - those kids who for one reason or another are stuck in the school over Christmas. They won’t be alone because the tutor whose turn it is to watch over them has an escape plan, giving the headmaster (Andrew Garman) the perfect opportunity to give a sort of teacher ‘detention’ to Hunham as punishment for refusing to give a pass grade in the previous term to a moneyed student.

In short, nobody wants to be there and Mary’s suggestion that Hunham go easy on the kids is met with the rejoinder, “Latitude is the last thing these boys need.” The film bundles forward in a way that’s just disorderly enough to imitate life, which coupled with acting that runs the full emotional gauntlet delivers a lot of laughter and strikes an increasingly strong humanistic resonance as it goes. Hunham is a “bah humbug” sort, for sure, but he’s also aware - for reasons that are gradually revealed - of the harsh vicissitudes of life. Mary’s good natured but no-nonsense approach to both him and the kids also shapes the film in unexpected ways, while Tully’s attitude is revealed to stem as much from his own fragility as a sense of entitlement.

The school gates will get left behind during the course of the film but those lessons on life just keep coming, not in the way of morals being delivered but in the way where the characters begin to realise one or two things about themselves and start to make adjustments accordingly. The smaller characters are not mere ornaments but finely honed in their own right, including two young Mormon kids who are also holdovers (Ian Dooley and Jim Caplan) and who bring a keen sense of missing family, and the school secretary (Carrie Preston, delightful), whose Christmas party at the film’s midway point encapsulates its multi-faceted mood.

Hemingson’s script resists neatness and sentimentality, thanks largely to the sharpness of Hunham’s wit and Tully’s teenage ebullience, but still leaves room for emotional manoeuvre. Payne’s approach fits all this like hand in woolly mitten, as he lets bustle fall away at just the right moments to let poignancy emerge in ways that are likely to catch you fumbling for a handkerchief. Early in the film someone steals one of the young kids' gloves. He's told only one was taken so that he feels the loss of it all the more acutely. This is essentially the trick of this film, to offer just enough rawness so that the warmth feels doubly welcome when it arrives. A bittersweet but heady Christmas cocktail and, by New Year, gifts that nobody bargained for will be given and received.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2023
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The Holdovers packshot
An unpopular teacher, a talented but badly behaved student and a cook who recently lost her son in Vietnam spend Christmas together in an otherwise empty boarding school.
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Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: David Hemingson

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Tate Donovan, Carrie Preston

Year: 2023

Runtime: 133 minutes

Country: US

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