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Review: The Holdovers (2023)

The Holdovers (2023)

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Premise: Set in 1970, a prep school student (Dominic Sessa), a cantankerous humanities instructor (Paul Giamatti), and a grieving school cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) spend the holidays together.  

What Works: The Holdovers is a mix of comedy and drama. The story is fundamentally melancholic but the picture possesses an acerbic and occasionally cringe inducing sense of humor. The comedy and the drama support one another. The drama gives the movie substance and gravitas and the humor offers some relief from the sadness while also humanizing the characters. That sad tone is set by the style and temperature of The Holdovers. The winter setting is appropriate and the filmmakers use the snowy landscape well. The empty hallways of the old school building are baren and the interior and exterior locations have a vividly chilly feel. Later scenes warm up through subtle changes to the lighting and color scheme, giving the film a sense of emotional movement from one end to the other. The performances are also exceptional and carefully calibrated while still feeling organic. The film is led by Paul Giamatti as Paul, an intensely intellectual humanities instructor who is great with books but not so good with people. Giamatti has a talent for playing insufferable characters which he does here while also finding the character’s humanity. He gets many of the film’s best lines and Giamatti nails the delivery. Dominic Sessa plays Agnus, a student who has been left behind for the holidays and is stuck with two adults who might as well be strangers. Teenage angst is nothing new at the movies but Sessa gives the character depth. Some of Agnus’ choices are selfish but we can see why. Also impressive is Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary, the school cook. Mary is not as educated as the others but she’s very wise and Randolph delivers lines that enunciate the point without coming across trite. She’s given her own backstory and subplot which Randolph brings to life and she has some of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes. The Holdovers is unified by its sense of loneliness and the way characters overcome it. In that respect, The Holdovers is an excellent holiday movie. It possesses the warmth and humor and human connection we associate with the season but without the saccharine qualities that characterize so many holiday films.

What Doesn’t: When The Holdovers begins, Paul is in charge of a handful of students who are stranded at school for the holidays. Eventually one wealthy student’s parents take everyone for a holiday getaway except Agnus. This plot point is a contrived story development to isolate the three lead characters. Fortunately, this happens early on and the pacing and the interest pick up as the story focuses on the trio left behind.

Bottom Line: The Holdovers is among Alexander Payne’s best movies alongside Election and Nebraska. It’s both funny and heartbreaking and the movie has three terrific central performances.

Episode: #975 (December 3, 2023)