The Holdovers tells the story of faculty, staff and students held over the winter break at a New England boarding school. If there’s one thing that an audience can count on Alexander Payne for, it’s adding small-town charm to Hollywood-style antics. Payne’s films present as hamlet-chic, where towns like Omaha, NE get a panache that’s not too heightened, but with a sort of elegance to their sheen.
Payne has a love for his hometown of Omaha and the Midwest in general. And though Sideways took place in the west and The Holdovers sets in the east, Payne’s directing acts like a sort of Route 66 unifying and transporting Midwest hospitality from coast to coast.
Payne's first-ever period piece is an unconventional holiday film that stars the always-wonderful Paul Giamatti, the lovely and talented Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and promising newcomer Dominic Sessa. Circumstantially, the three end up as “holdovers”, spending the two-week holiday break at Barton. The film takes place in the ‘70s, and as such, modern-day regulations for sustaining young life were lax. The power and heat get cut throughout the school everywhere except the infirmary and Mary’s (Randolph) residence.
Already feeling abandoned by his parents and classmates, Angus (Sessa) not only has to spend the holiday break somewhere he doesn’t want to be but also with the last person on earth he’d want to spend it with, Giamatti’s Paul Hunham. Paul is a cantankerous professor who appears to take pride in being the toughest professor. He claims his gravity builds character but he may have more to that claim than advertised. Angus is a bright young student but acting out and rebellious. The two bump heads despite having respect for each other.
Mary Lamb runs the kitchen and has successfully for well over a decade. Her son, Curtis, recently passed, and Mary has kept to herself, often seen nursing a bottle late at night. She’s given a wide berth and doesn’t seem to have any lasting friendships outside of what seems to be a supportive relationship with the handyman, Danny (Naheem Garcia). Together, the three (and occasionally Danny) try to make the most out of cold rooms, endless leftovers, and no holiday cheer.
Payne brings a comfort to the way the trio moves through the space and the director captures this intimacy so it’s pleasantly noticeable. To add to this authenticity, the production filmed no scenes on soundstages. The whole production shot on location and the rooms feel lived in and present. The story is solid, aided by top-notch direction and cinematography. The actors deliver fantastic performances, but the film leaves a bit to be desired with the character development.
At first, I’d considered The Holdovers as a movie about Paul from Paul’s point of view. Mary’s storyline seemed like a square peg smushed into a round hole, and Angus’s storyline seemed to fill in the space. Ultimately, a two-hander with both Paul and Mary sharing the perspective would have been preferred, especially as Angus’s story is directly tied to Paul. However, I’ve since heard of the film referred to as a three-hander, and while it’s not exactly accurate, I understand the motivation.
We learn nearly all of Paul’s story right away not just through exposition but because of the archetypal of the character he plays. In this makeshift Christmas carol, Paul plays Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s a misanthrope whose best days have left him behind making him bitter and in need of whiskey to get through term. He believes himself aloof, witty, and pretentious (which he is), but he’s got terrible timing. Paul entered Barton at 15 and never looked back. He also never moved too far forward. As the former professor for the current headmaster, Paul feels entitled to respect and seems to have no real inducements to go beyond what he’s doing.
Wittingly or not, Paul does act as a general pain to the student body and a great deal of the faculty and staff. Really only a few can stand Paul, one of which is Mary, and the other is an unrequited flame named Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston). He has his favorite students but hesitates to afford them any sort of grace.
Payne tells Mary’s story, on the other hand, in pieces. Her son died in battle and the reason she’d been working at Barton in the first place was to afford him an excellent education. So why is she still there? How hard is it for her to know that the joy and purpose of her life have departed yet she still works in the same place that provided for him? It’s a bitter and sorrowful circumstance and Randolph displays it with beautiful tenderness. But in lesser hands, the slight underdevelopment of the character could turn her into a cookie-cutter. We see more of Mary’s growth, but it’s all a little too soon, too fast, too easy.
As for Angus, he’s a younger facsimile of Paul. While at first Paul seems to admire him for these similarities, he also begins to pity him for the parallels that run even deeper and have led Paul to his predicament in life. Angus is not quite the Tiny Tim to Paul’s Scrooge, but maybe closer to Bob Cratchett. He sees the potential in Angus and comes around to wanting him to have the opportunities that Paul himself never took advantage of. And it didn’t even take a visit from the ghost of Christmas future! Payne doesn't quite pay equal attention to all his characters, but The Holdovers still offers a fun ride.
Travel as Therapy
While the bulk of the film takes place at Barton, some excursions build on each character and expose the inner workings of the characters, the faces behind the masks. Even Mary generally operates with a bemused sort of sarcasm, but we see the grief she’s carried around behind a cracked facade. We also see the inherent compassion and respect that Paul has for Mary and the confusion, but also the relatability Angus feels once he understands their situations align more closely than he knew.
Angus’s perception is especially interesting because on the surface, the film could be called a warm story about cold-hearted people, but their hearts aren’t cold as much as they are sheltered. Sometimes hurt people just hurt, and it becomes such a part of them operating in a “devil you know” type of mode. Paul, Mary, and Angus ally carry pain with differing capacities for accepting or even recognizing love, but none of them have closed themselves off to it. The beauty of The Holdovers is it’s not just the story of three lonely souls alone in the cold; it’s about three people developing the space for love, whether or not they find a long-lasting one. The belief was lost, and the journey is about finding it again, no matter how unlikely the travel companions.
Overall, The Holdovers is a lovely film full of layered and committed performances and theatrical moments dappled with spots of humor. We highly recommend it, especially to anyone who wants to see Payne in top form and Paul Giamatti at his absolute best.
Score: 6.5/10 SPECS
The Holdovers will premiere in theaters nationwide on November 10th, 2023.
Stacey Yvonne - Critic on Beyonce's Internet
Hailing from the mild, mild Midwest, I knew I would be Los Angeles bound and before I knew it, I was in the wild west! I'm an entertainment journalist, TV & Film critic, moderator and red carpet reporter. I write for sites like Black Girl Nerds, The Geekiary, Out.com and The Cherry Picks. I love elevating Black, female and queer voices. I graduated suma cum laude from the school of hard knocks and just finished my PhD program in "These Streets". Looking forward to passing on my knowledge to all of you fine folk.