Alexander Payne’s latest feature-length, The Holdovers, takes the form of a feel-good Christmas tale with a nostalgic Dead Poets Society feel. With five Oscar-nominations under its belt, including Best Picture, Actor, and Supporting Actress, the film is a perfectly warm and sentimental choice for a winter evening in.
After starring in Payne’s Oscar-winning comedy-drama Sideways (2004), Paul Giamatti takes the lead in the filmmaker’s newest endeavour, playing the curmudgeonly schoolteacher, Paul Hunham. Hunham is a misanthropic classics professor at the esteemed Barton Academy, a New England all-boys boarding school. He is given the undesirable role of chaperoning the students who are staying on at the school over Christmas break, one of whom is the anxious misfit, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Forced together, along with the school’s cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the group form an dysfunctional familial bond.
Mr Hunham is a cantankerous loner, overly focused on the duties of his job with little space left for a life outside of the Barton campus. Giamatti’s performance nuances the determinedly unlovable man; he is humanised by a comical love of Jim Beam whiskey and a lifelong desire to write a monograph about an ancient Semitic civilisation.
Angus is abandoned for the Christmas holidays by his flighty mother and her new husband. The 15-year-old troublemaker is a petulant and untrusting teenager, itching to escape from the regiments of his education. As Dominic Sessa’s film debut, his portrayal of the rebellious student is nothing short of remarkable.
Barton head chef, Mary is plagued by grief, following the death of her son, who was sent off to fight in Vietnam. Her fiercely loving nature is the emotional centre of the film, whilst Angus and Paul persistently refuse to water down their equally stubborn characters.
Her fiercely loving nature is the emotional centre of the film, whilst Angus and Paul persistently refuse to water down their equally stubborn characters.
The trio come together in unlikely ways throughout the course of the film, finding commonalities and compassion in one another as they navigate a painfully solitary winter break. As Payne’s first period movie, The Holdovers fully embraces its retro feel. The majority of the film takes place in the December of 1970, and its set design, colour grading, and handheld camerawork capture the vintage aesthetics of the period.
Above everything, The Holdovers is a redemptive story of three lost souls.
Above everything, The Holdovers is a redemptive story of three lost souls. Payne’s character-driven filmmaking produces a comforting glimpse into the beauty of unconventional human connection. Whilst the rotation of winter comfort watches often churns out the very same films every year, The Holdovers is a melancholy, yet hopeful addition to the collection. It is most definitely worth a watch, and one to keep an eye on in this upcoming awards season.