It’s been a long time since Alexander Payne made something worthwhile, but with The Holdovers, he crafts his best picture since 2003’s Sideways, which also starred Paul Giamatti. The two reunite for the first time in twenty years to craft a sincere coming-of-age comedy with one of Giamatti’s very best turns in recent memory and a star-making portrayal from Dominic Sessa in a breakout role as Angus Tully, a teen student forced to spend the Christmas vacation at his school with professor Paul Hunham (played by Giamatti), assigned to supervise students who cannot go home during the holidays.
Hunham is a bit of a crank, unafraid of flunking 99% of his class (even giving them an F+ in their exams, if that’s a thing) and calling them Philistines as they experience total hell in his ancient history class. As punishment for flunking the son of a well-established senator, therefore preventing him from accessing a prestigious college, the school’s principal puts him in charge of ensuring “The Holdovers” don’t cause any trouble while all of the staff, minus Hunham and cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), are away.
However, when a student’s father arrives by helicopter and takes all of The Holdovers, except for Angus, on a ski trip, Hunham’s behavior is now challenged by Angus’ more freeing outlook on life as the two grapple with their own insecurities and get to know each other a bit more during the holidays. Its pace is relatively slow, but Payne makes his comedy unique by plucking its aesthetic aspects out of a 1970s picture, from the MPAA rating at the top of the film to an old-style Focus Features logo to position it as a time-capsule film, just like his 2013 feature Nebraska opened with the classic Paramount logo in black & white.
Alexander Payne Captures the 1970s with Aplomb in The Holdovers
Payne doesn’t stop there. He and cinematographer Eigil Bryld, alongside editor Kevin Trent, utilize many techniques vastly popularized in the 1970s: handheld crash zooms and dissolves being the most frequent. It’s almost as if Payne took the quote “If you can’t resolve, dissolve” to the extreme, transitioning each scene to the next. But it adds to the authenticity of his 1970s experiment, analyzing each effective technique with the utmost precision and making them a distinct part of The Holdovers’ viewing experience.
Many critics have called the film “cozy,” which is a bit weird when it presents a rather complex tale of two characters with intense emotional baggage, but part of that reception has to do with how Payne and Trent edit their movies. Dissolves, especially in comedies, are associated with a certain “coziness” because the effect is never abrupt. It feels like a natural evolution from one sequence to the next, comfortably accompanying the audience to the next scene.
But it’s not a “cozy” or “comfortable” movie. Of course, it does have its fair share of heartwarming moments, especially with how Payne evolves Hunham’s arc from the beginning of the film, where his spineless demeanor as a professor seems to be his way to make himself feel important and influential in front of his students, to the end, where he appears “almost” human, as the principal so aptly described him as.
However, none of the main characters have a particularly easy life. The audience doesn’t know much about Hunham’s past, and he certainly doesn’t want to talk about it, but it hasn’t been easy for him, and some part of his earlier life scarred him so much that he now acts like this. The same goes for Angus, whose absentee parental figures (Gillian Vigman & Tate Donovan) make it hard to have much-needed emotional support while his birth father is institutionalized.
Mary also has difficulty grappling with her son’s death, the only former student at the school who enlisted in the Vietnam War and was killed in action. Many will [rightfully] talk about Giamatti and Sessa’s incredible turns, but do not sleep on Joy Randolph, who gives one of the year’s quietest yet utterly devastating performances.
She doesn’t need to say much, but her presence gives the emotional power required for the other characters to feel what she’s going through, knowing that her heart will never fully heal itself with the loss of her son. Again, it’s incredibly subtle, but there wasn’t a single dry eye in the cinema when she opened herself up about his death for the first time during a Christmas Eve party, and it will potentially be the clip that lands her an Oscar nomination soon.
Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa Light Up the Screen
As for Giamatti and Sessa, they’re dynamite. It’s been a while since audiences have seen Giamatti lead a movie, as he’s been relegated to supporting roles for quite some time, but it feels so good to see him command a film like this. It’s his best performance since American Splendor (or perhaps Big Fat Liar for the more artistically aware crowd), deftly balancing absurd comedy with an emotional core that slowly shows itself as the 133-minute film progresses.
Perhaps Hunham isn’t a crank after all, but he indeed called someone a “penis cancer in human form” to get the last laugh out of his behavior. He also plays with his face and eyes a lot, conveying everything the audience needs to know about how he is through the way he moves his eyes to create some subtly absurd facial expressions that never fail to make the audience laugh.
Meanwhile, Sessa is a revelation. His performance seems highly inspired by how teenagers were portrayed in 1970s pictures, most notably in Brian de Palma’s Carrie, and it shows. But it’s not to the portrayal’s detriment: it actively enhances how he conveys Angus to the audience and how he makes his first step as an actor bound to be a star.
It’s perhaps the film’s most significant achievement since the audience knew how great Giamatti and Joy Randolph were before The Holdovers. Dominic Sessa is now a name to remember, especially when the awards bodies are currently watching the biggest films of the year.
As someone who isn’t particularly big on Payne (his last film, Downsizing, is utter trash), The Holdovers is one of his better movies, stylistically above anything he’s done so far, with three great lead performances carrying this emotionally complex and powerful coming-of-age tale that’s neither cozy nor too dark. But it has the right emotional balance to strike a chord with audiences who will leave the theater feeling uplifted. Because of this, it’s bound to become a holiday classic, whether it was meant to be or not.
The Holdovers is now playing in theatres everywhere. What did you think of the movie? Do you think Paul Giamatti deserves an Oscar nomination? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow us on social media!