‘The Holdovers’ is a Kindhearted, Relatable Story About Loneliness – Review
Despite making cinematic classics like Election, Sideways, The Descendants, and About Schmidt, that have yielded critical acclaim and many accolades, Alexander Payne isn’t as highly regarded amongst film fans as other writer-directors like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Spike Jonze. Generally, speaking there isn’t much excitement generated around his projects, that is until The Holdovers.
Nevertheless, Payne reunites with Sideways star Paul Giamatti for The Holdovers, a heartwarming story of three shipwrecked people forced to remain at New England prep school Barton Academy during the 1970 holiday break. Written by David Hemingson, the film was initially supposed to be a television pilot before Payne got a hold of the script and sought to make it his next project.
Paul Giamatti’s performance is exceptional in portraying a cross-eyed, begrudged history teacher who is stuck babysitting rich kids at Barton over the holidays. Giamatti’s oddly charming performance deserves every nomination it will earn during award season. Universally detested by most students and faculty, Giamatti’s Paul Hunham ultimately gets saddled with holdover responsibility after giving a bad grade to a wealthy donor’s son. Mr. Hunham’s adverse resentment towards privilege plays out in his witty evisceration of several students at the beginning of the film. His erudite dismantling puts him at odds with the young men he supervises over the holidays.
One of those students is a bright 11th-grader named Angus, played by first-timer Dominic Sessa. Excited to go on a family trip to Boston, the smart-mouthed teenager learns that his newly married mother (Gillian Vigman) and stepfather Stanley (Emmy Award-winning actor Tate Donovan) have decided to take their honeymoon over the holiday period, leaving Angus to holdover. In his on-screen debut, Mr. Sessa gracefully interweaves quip, naïveté, and inner sadness to make his character honest and empathetic.
Stranded alongside Angus was a rich jock named Jason Smith (Michael Provost); one of Angus’ bullies, Teddy Kountze (Brady Hefner); a Korean exchange student Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan); and the cheerful Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley) whose parents are on a religious mission for the Latter-Day Saints. The other kids are just there to complement Angus’ complicated worldview and distinguish his angsty intellectualism from the rest of the pack. As the story progresses, Angus’ journey of self-discovery shines amidst the ups and downs accompanying life’s growing pains.
Also holding over is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head cook at Barton Academy, who remains over the winter to grieve the offscreen death of her only child Curtis–a recent Barton graduate killed in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the film fails to give Mary any thorough characterization outside of mourning her son or serving as a mami-like companionship to the leads. Even in the microscopic glances inside Mary Lamb’s life outside of school, neither screenwriter David Hemingson nor Academy Award winner Alexander Payne even attempts to pen a single dialogue scene without Mr. Hunham or Angus nearby.
That’s not to say that I didn’t love this movie. Despite a meager character arc from one of the film’s few Black characters, the Nebraska director manages to sidestep a surface-level examination of class and privilege to create a kindhearted, relatable story of abandonment and loneliness. Somehow, this unlikely trio finds some semblance of family among each other through shared emotions of grief, depression, and solitude. Thanks to its razor-sharp dialogue and beautifully subtle performances, The Holdovers illuminates the tender sensitivity of rising above life’s lowest moments.
Despite Hunham’s starchy antagonistic perception of the holdover kids, he quietly accepts the paradoxical nature of educating the affluent high schoolers he disdains. Watching the curmudgeonly instructor transform into a caring mentor figure will surely bring tears to your eyes. Like Payne’s and Hemingson’s characters, The Holdovers will shift your worldview from meaninglessness into wholesome over 2 hours and 13 minutes. This nostalgic coming-of-age tale delivers a full-circle emotional expedition for young and old.