5 out of 5 stars

“There’s nothing new in human experience,” the cranky history teacher, Mr Hunham (Paul Giamatti), says to his junior student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who’s mesmerised by a pornographic depiction on a millennia-old vase from ancient Greece in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. “Each generation thinks it invented debauchery, suffering, or rebellion, but man’s every impulse and appetite from the disgusting to the sublime is on display right here all around you.”

Directed by Alexander Payne (Election) with a debut screenplay from David Hemingson, The Holdovers is an impeccably crafted film about loneliness, loss, and connection that is beautifully directed, exceptionally acted, hilariously written, and an overall masterpiece.

On the snow-blanketed Northeastern U.S. campus of the prestigious Barton Academy, the iron-fisted classics professor, Paul Hunham, faces unexpected circumstances. After flunking the rich Senator’s son in his classics class, is forced to remain behind for Christmas break with the holdover students, those who have no place to go during the holidays. High-achieving but troubled student, Angus Tully, is excited to go to the beach with his mother and step-father until she calls him at the last minute that their family vacation has turned into a honeymoon, leaving Angus alone on campus with four other holdover students, Mr. Hunham, and the grieving head chef, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son just passed on duty in Vietnam. Angry to be left behind, Angus clashes with his fascist teacher throughout the two-week break, unable to avoid each other’s company.

The Holdovers hinges on the forced interactions of three unlikely characters whose circumstances and personalities would hardly make them cordial, let alone friends. Mr Hunham, a lonely man who finds comfort in solitude, is unexpectedly thrust into babysitting duty. Angus, an angst-ridden young man with a string of expulsions, teeters on the edge of military school. And Mary, a strong-willed and congenial woman, faces her first Christmas without her son, isolated and adrift.

Despite the improbable setup, Hemingson’s whip-smart script unearths genuine moments of humanity and humour that feel both natural and revelatory. The film also showcases career-best performances from its lead actors, further cementing the emotional authenticity of these unlikely bonds.

Paul Giamatti, reuniting with director Payne after they collaborated on Sideways (2004), injects immense empathy into a complex, lonely man in a role destined for Academy Award consideration. He’s cruel, cynical, and broken, declaring to the students over dinner, “Life is like a henhouse ladder. Shitty and short.” Yet, beneath the hardened shell lies a thoughtful and hopeful soul desperate for a nudge in the right direction. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, heartbreaking in her power, shines as a friend, caretaker, and mother. Witnessing her sacrifice her grief to support those in need is a true pleasure. Her subtle gestures of compassion, like extending a hand to Angus in his darkest hour or masking her pain to call out Paul’s insensitivity, resonate deeply on screen. Dominic Sessa, a real-life graduate of Deerfield Academy (one of the film’s shooting locations), marks his Hollywood debut with a remarkable performance. His precise mannerisms, comedic timing, and commanding presence belie his young age (he’s only 21). Witnessing these three actors deliver compelling performances throughout the 133-minute runtime is a true delight.

Every second of The Holdovers is earned. Shot on an Arri Alexa digital camera with the feel of film to match its 1970s setting, Payne’s film is meticulously crafted. Echos of Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997) fill the halls of Barton Academy, yet The Holdovers remains highly original in its own right. 

Each scene packs a punch, with tender moments and hilarious sequences becoming instantly memorable. It’s fun to watch Angus slip out at night to drink the wine used during mass or Mr Hunham’s over-eagerness to talk about classics to bored bar patrons. The Holdovers exudes authenticity at each layer without forcing sentimentality or emotions on the audience, ultimately achieving its natural catharsis.

The Holdovers stands strong on its universal themes, defying the limitations of its specific story. The fragility of egos and the ache of loneliness, though often associated with the 20th-century male, transcend any era. The film’s poignant exploration of the power of human connection resonates deeply, making it truly timeless. While its 1970s setting is vividly rendered through the music, clothing, hairstyles, and pop culture of the age, the characters feel contemporary, as if written for our own time.

Unlike so many Christmas movies, destined to be mothballed from January until the holiday season rolls around again, The Holdovers gracefully escapes confinement. It brims with the spirit of Christmas and the yearning for belonging that defines the season, yet remains enjoyable and relevant throughout the year.

Though lacking the A-list actors and CGI spectacles of mainstream cinema, The Holdovers demands to be experienced on the big screen. It whispers a profound truth: to grasp the present, to grasp ourselves, we must delve into the past. “Before you dismiss something as boring or irrelevant, remember, if you truly want to understand the present or yourself, you must begin in the past,” a character declares, “You see, history is not simply the study of the past. It is an explanation of the present.” The Holdovers seamlessly mixes past and present, crafting a sublime cinematic experience. This 2023 gem has all the makings of an instant classic, a delight destined to enthral viewers for years to come.

USA | 2023 | 133 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Alexander Payne.
writer: David Hemingson.
starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost & Andrew Garman.