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Review: 'The Holdovers'

Updated: Jan 6

I have a lot of respect for Alexander Payne.  His previous work included: Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013), and Downsizing (2017).  It’s an impressive body of work for a director. 

So, I sat up and took notice when I saw that his latest film co-starred Paul Giamatti.  The two of them had a very successful collaboration in Sideways.  The movie trailers seemed to indicate that the magic was happening all over again.

As with Payne’s earlier work, The Holdovers is a quirky story about a cranky, unpopular teacher at a boy’s school who gets stuck with the care and custody of a pain-in-the-ass problem student (Dominic Sessa) over the course of a two-week Christmas break. 

It turns out that the boy’s parents are unable or unwilling to invite him home for the holidays and he finds himself stuck at the school, a place he despises. 

Giamatti’s character, Paul Hunham, is even less happy about the turn of events despite the fact that he is being paid for the torturous 14 days.  He and the student find themselves imprisoned in a private school, in the middle of a cold, snowy, New England winter.  Their fellow inmates include the school’s cook and janitor.

Predictably, the story begins with the clash of people who can’t be around each other, trying to survive a long stretch of punishing confinement in very close (and closed) quarters. 

The story material is custom made for Paul Giamatti who explores every comedic nuance of this middle-aged history teacher loner who lives in the past and is incapable of relating to anyone in the present day, which, in the movie, is the decade of the 1970s.

The Holdovers is a movie that looks like it is from the Seventies, beginning with the throwback opening titles and the vintage movie ratings credits.

From a visual standpoint, it has all the earmarkings of a movie made a half century ago, despite the fact that it was shot on a digital format, not color film stock.

Like movies from a bygone era, The Holdovers focuses on the lives of just a handful of characters. That turns out to be the strength of the film—digging deep into backstories and ever-evolving relationships.

The script (by David Hemington) is a journey of growth and discovery that is engaging and heartwarming all the way.  There has been some criticism that the film seems to be a comedy that unpredictably veers off into a more serious direction about halfway through.  It’s an arguable point.  Granted, things get more complicated as the story unfolds, but there is still humor throughout.  The shift in tone never seems like a stretch.

Although The Holdovers takes place over a Christmas break, it is not really a Christmas movie.  The holiday merely provides a premise for the plot.  Anyone expecting a schmaltzy, sugar-coated story would be disappointed.  That was never the intention of the writer or director who have stated that in interviews.

What it is, is a wonderfully structured tale that really resonates in terms of content and style.  The casting is perfect.  The performances couldn’t be better. 

A lot of credit goes to newcomer Dominic Sassa who really shows his stuff working with a veteran like Paul Giamatti. 

Da’Vine Joy Randolph also deserves a mention for her character, Mary Lamb, the wise cook carrying the weight of personal tragedy, who has done it all and seen it all when it comes to the school’s pretentious staff and privileged students.  She is a delight.

Like Payne’s previous work, The Holdovers is not a glitzy, big-budget movie.  It was shot on location at

several New England schools during an actual holiday break.  Mother Nature cooperated by delivering actual snow, making the location look and feel like real life reality instead of an artificial Hollywood set.

Add The Holdovers to Alexander Payne’s growing list of impressive movies.  It’s an expanding body of work that gets better over time.  I can’t wait to see what’s next.


Photo Credits: Focus Features and Seacia Pavao


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