Movie Review: A holiday movie with some bite in Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers’

by Madison Thomas
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Film Review

Film Review: Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” – A Captivating Tale of Loneliness and Reflection

In “The Holdovers,” Alexander Payne transports us to a New England boarding school in the winter of 1970, weaving a textured, nostalgic, and often humorous narrative around three disparate souls brought together during the Christmas break. This cinematic gem is not only a keeper but has the potential to attain classic status.

In a genre where even the most well-intentioned productions can veer into saccharine sentimentality, Payne, in collaboration with the adept screenwriter David Hemingston, masterfully grounds “The Holdovers” in authenticity. This film’s meticulous craftsmanship allows the audience to almost taste the cigarette smoke and sense the numbing chill of drafty wool mittens, irrespective of their personal memories of that era.

From its evocative retro production titles at the outset, “The Holdovers” successfully immerses viewers in a bygone era, a testament to Payne’s directorial intent. Likewise, the recurring melody of Damien Jurado’s “Silver Joy” feels like a forgotten Cat Stevens tune from decades past rather than a recent composition, enhancing the film’s transportive enchantment.

Paul Giamatti takes on the role of Paul Hunham, an embittered ancient history instructor whose only source of satisfaction seems to stem from rigorously holding his privileged students accountable, regardless of political considerations. He epitomizes the type of individual who eyes a colleague bearing homemade Christmas cookies with suspicion and considers initiating a new lesson just before the break.

Paul is tasked with the unenviable duty of overseeing the holdover students, those who remain on campus for various reasons during the holiday. Following a few days of chaos and humor, the group dwindles down to a lone individual: Angus Tully, portrayed by newcomer Dominic Sessa. Angus’s beach vacation plans with his mother are dashed when she opts to spend time with her new husband, leaving no one content, least of all Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head cook mourning her son’s loss in the Vietnam War.

The ensemble cast delves beyond the confines of their character stereotypes, skillfully navigating the complexities of an unfortunate situation. As food deliveries cease and the campus heating is limited to the infirmary, where they must reside in austere hospital beds, the situation grows increasingly bleak.

Remarkably, “The Holdovers” marks the first collaboration between Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne since their iconic “Sideways” almost two decades ago. Their synergy is palpable, with Giamatti seamlessly embodying his character’s idiosyncrasies, showcasing a depth of pathos and an unwavering commitment to his vision of a Barton man’s principles.

Randolph brings turbulent emotions to a character that could have remained one-dimensional, imbuing her role with wit, wisdom, and a perfect counterbalance to Paul’s didacticism.

However, the standout revelation is Dominic Sessa, making his impressive film debut. Discovered in the drama department of one of the shooting locations, Deerfield Academy, Sessa seamlessly fits into the period setting, exuding a genuine capacity for both drama and physical comedy while holding his own alongside seasoned co-stars.

While the notion of found family may appear trite and clichéd in “The Holdovers,” the film’s true resonance lies in the profound and credible lessons it imparts on being a compassionate human being – the importance of looking beyond one’s own troubles to empathize with and aid others. No one emerges from this tale miraculously fixed or healed; instead, it presents a slice of life in the pressure cooker of the holiday season.

“The Holdovers,” distributed by Focus Features, will premiere in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, with limited release starting on November 3rd and nationwide release on November 10th. It carries an R rating from the Motion Picture Association for “some drug use, language, and brief sexual material” and boasts a runtime of 133 minutes. With a commendable rating of three and a half stars out of four, this film is a compelling exploration of the human condition.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Film Review

Q: Who directed “The Holdovers”?

A: “The Holdovers” was directed by Alexander Payne.

Q: What is the setting of the film?

A: The film is set in a New England boarding school in 1970 during the Christmas break.

Q: What is the central theme of “The Holdovers”?

A: The central theme of the film revolves around solitude, personal growth, and the unexpected bonds formed among its characters during the holiday season.

Q: Who plays the role of Paul Hunham in the movie?

A: Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham, an embittered ancient history instructor in “The Holdovers.”

Q: When and where is “The Holdovers” scheduled to be released?

A: “The Holdovers” is set to premiere in New York and Los Angeles on a specific date (insert date here), followed by limited release starting on November 3rd, and nationwide release on November 10th.

Q: What is the film’s rating and why?

A: The film has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association due to “some drug use, language, and brief sexual material.”

Q: What is the runtime of “The Holdovers”?

A: The film has a runtime of 133 minutes.

Q: How would you describe the overall rating of “The Holdovers”?

A: “The Holdovers” has received a commendable rating of three and a half stars out of four, making it a compelling exploration of the human condition.

Q: What distinguishes Dominic Sessa’s performance in “The Holdovers”?

A: Dominic Sessa, making his film debut, impressively fits into the period setting and exhibits a genuine capacity for both drama and physical comedy, holding his own alongside seasoned co-stars.

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