It's been six years since Alexander Payne's last feature film, the tepidly-received Downsized, but he returns to form with The Holdovers, a charming tale of found family and the quietly powerful means by which one can change another's life.
Payne — this time working off a screenplay from David Hemingson (Kitchen Confidential) rather than a script he wrote himself — channels his peculiar blend of humor, distinctly unsentimental warmth, and wry observational style into what is, in essence, a Christmas movie. At first glance, that may seem as logical a pairing as holly and jack-o'-lanterns, but Payne surprises and reassures in equal measure.
When Angus Tully's mother cancels their holiday plans, he finds himself stuck as a "holdover" at his posh New England boarding school, Barton, over the winter break. To make matters worse, his chaperone is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the school's widely reviled ancient history teacher. When a turn of events leaves Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) in the company of only Mr. Hunham and the school's grieving cook, Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the trio form an unexpected bond as they try to muddle their way through the 1970 holiday season.
Seacia Pavao/2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in 'The Holdovers'
On paper, this seems to have the potential to veer into overly sentimental territory, but that has never been Payne's style. With films such as The Descendants and About Schmidt, he has probed subjects such as death, grief, and loneliness with a distinctly human eye and a healthy sense of humor — and The Holdovers is no exception.
The Holdovers marks Payne's first period piece, which is hard to believe given how seamlessly the trappings of the era are rendered with painstaking care, even down to the design of the studio title cards that precede the film. But perhaps the 1970 setting's greatest magic trick is its ability to make the film feel of its bygone time, rather than simply striving to replicate it.
Reteaming after their shared success on Sideways, Giamatti and Payne bring out the best in each other. Giamatti's curmudgeonly growl is the ideal instrument for Mr. Hunham, a teacher whose own passion for history can not outweigh the bitterness of a life littered with broken dreams. Exasperated crank is certainly within Giamatti's wheelhouse, but he also lends Hunham a piercing humanity and a potent well of loneliness. In his hands, Hunham is as deep as the snowfall outside the Barton campus windows.
Hunham meets his match in Angus, a proverbial pain in the ass who is wrestling with the fallout of his mother's remarriage after losing his father. Sessa, who Payne plucked from a private school drama club after an exhaustive search, is a wondrous discovery. Sessa's heartbreak and vulnerability are so raw they can be painful to watch. He presents himself to us as an open wound, an act that requires both bravery and humility to land with this level of pathos. Sessa also has a winking quality, a mischievous glint in his eye that suffuses Angus with a natural humor. He calibrates Angus' ability to swing wildly between reactive, hurting teenager and smart-aleck dilettante with an acuity beyond his years.
Randolph is equally endearing as Mary, who is facing the first Christmas without her son, a former Barton student who was killed in action in Vietnam. Though she could easily dismiss Hunham and Angus for their privileged positions, Mary tells it like it is while approaching them both with a remarkably open heart. Known predominantly as a comedic actress, Randolph blends her elite sense of timing with a deeply moving portrayal of a woman struggling to keep her head above the rising tide of her loss.
The film's three lost souls all need someone, and as their secrets trickle out, they become the ragtag family they so desperately crave. Even if only for a little while. The holidays are inherently melancholy for so many — the season's emphasis on togetherness simultaneously highlighting our most painful losses. It is through this bittersweet relationship with the season that these characters connect.
Courtesy FOCUS FEATURES Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in 'The Holdovers'
There is something so relatable, so deeply human about their pain and their circumstances — there's a startling honesty in the kaleidoscope of emotions they all are experiencing at any given time. Life is messy, and The Holdovers never loses sight of that truth. But the film never becomes self-indulgent either. Payne is a satirist, but the movie leans more into physical comedy and witty dialogue than spearing social mores. The rapidity with which the film transitions from a slapstick chase sequence to a hilarious physical accident to a moving hospital visit, while maintaining its tone throughout, is emblematic of how fine-tuned the proceedings are. If previous Payne films have possessed the more acidic mark of a Billy Wilder influence, this film feels pure Capra.
The Holdovers is downright earnest in its view of connection and the opportunities there are to save (or, at least, help) each other if only we take the time to listen. While the movie is deceptively clever and quite funny, it also showcases Payne's inherent understanding of the power of silence. Giamatti may monologue effectively about the value of history in comprehending the present, but there's equal resonance in the shared glances and tiniest gestures the core trio share.
Seacia Pavao/FOCUS FEATURES LLC Director Alexander Payne, Paul Giamatti, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph on the set of 'The Holdovers'
It feels odd to call this film a Christmas movie; perhaps because it's such an unexpected move from Payne. But it is — first, in surface-level ways, with the profusion of holiday decor in various scenes or the frequent use of traditional carols on the soundtrack. Yet, also thematically in the ways the film encapsulates the spirit of the season — how it captures the need to belong to something greater than oneself, the profusion of a sudden generosity in human nature, and the simple ways in which we can touch each other's lives.
The Holdovers is a warm hug of a movie and the closest thing we've had to a new holiday classic in quite some time. Perhaps largely because it reinvigorates the message of another beloved Christmas film with its poignant reminder that no man is a failure who has friends. Grade: A-
The Holdovers opens in select cities on Oct. 27, followed by a wide release on Nov. 10.
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