Review: ‘The Holdovers’

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There’s a certain compulsion to revisiting a favourite film of yesteryear to remark with an air of nostalgic ennui that ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’. The Holdovers (2023), the latest effort from Alexander Payne, is a film which seems to have been constructed with that certain compulsion in mind, positioning itself as a classic of the late 20th century, which we all collectively managed to miss out on until the 21st. From its opening moments, we are greeted by retro studio logos and the all but extinct noise of film crackle before being plunged headfirst into the overwhelmingly charming period setting. Our first glimpses of The Holdovers are snowy forests, chimney smoke rising over cottages, rivers nearly frozen over and – as a sole anomaly in this wintry tableau – the warm, wood panelled interiors of the fictional Barton Academy, the New England boarding school around which the film centres. It is this dichotomy of warmth and cold that buoys the film’s winning cocktail of overbearing melancholy and revelatory joy.

The action takes place over the two-week winter break at Barton Academy, during which a misanthropic ancient civilisations teacher (Paul Giamatti) is tasked with supervising a group of boys not going home for Christmas – the titular holdovers. Before long, the school break becomes a kind of purgatorial state for the characters, their physical immobility mirrored by the emotional malaises in which the principal characters find themselves stuck. As 70s folk-rock plays in the background, the cold of the winter and of their collective sadnesses is warmed by the newfound relationships that are formed on the foundations of their shared troubles. It’s an admittedly familiar premise but, somehow, it is played out here with such sincerity, nuance, and humour that it feels both entirely new and instantly classic. None of these well-trodden ever tropes feel predictable or overwrought. In the hands of this script and this cast, these characters feel utterly real, and their story feels like the most important one in the world.

There is a physicality to his performance, an ever-present sense that this is a man dogged by the twin weights of age and regret, that is in equal parts comic and moving

The central trio of The Holdovers ­– Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and newcomer Dominic Sessa – are all instrumental in making the film work. Never anything less than absurdly endearing, it would be a crime of unthinkable proportions if none of them went home from this years Oscar’s night with a trophy. As the curmudgeonly teacher at the heart of the film, Giamatti toes the line between outrageously funny and blisteringly melancholic with ease, recalling at times Jack Lemmon and others of the great sad-funnymen of classic Hollywood. There is a physicality to his performance, an ever-present sense that this is a man dogged by the twin weights of age and regret, that is in equal parts comic and moving. His ability to infuse every facial expression with the crushing weight of a lifetime’s worth of wasted potential is astounding. In one particularly standout moment, Giamatti sees a would-be lover kissing another man and turns to the camera with a look of what can only be described as soul crushing emptiness. You’re never sure whether to laugh or cry.

Randolph’s inspired turn as a cafeteria worker mourning the recent death of her son in Vietnam, staying behind at Barton because it is the last place the two were together, transforms a role, that could so easily have been by-the-numbers, into something altogether extraordinary. She never settles into caricature or overexpression to express the depths of her sadness, instead allowing the dull weight of grief to imbue every aspect of her performance, hanging just underneath the surface in such a way that makes those few moments when she does lose control of her emotions all the more powerful. In his first film role, Dominic Sessa seems undaunted by the prospect of sharing the screen with some of the finest actors of their generations, embodying the character of Argus Tully, a troubled student abandoned by his family at Christmas, with all the charm and earnestness that it warrants, evoking Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), an admitted inspiration of Sessa’s. The chemistry between him and Giamatti in particular is phenomenal to watch – if the entire film were just the two bickering, then it would still be worth the price of admission.

If it weren’t for its delayed UK release, The Holdovers would already be an immediate Christmas classic, but it’ll surely only take a rerun on BBC Two this December for its status to be assured. An ode to all the lonely, wayward, and grieving, a reminder that it’s never too late to change our ways and that, as cliché as it may sound, we can only get through this life together. The Holdovers is an homage to the classics that more than deserves to stand alongside them as an equal. It is certainly the most likable film of the year and undoubtedly one of the very best.

Image credit: Raph_PH via Flickr

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