2 min read

The Holdovers

Alexander Payne's latest is both emotionally deep and tonally light, in all the best ways.
The Holdovers

I've seen the trailer for Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers" over 10 times. It's played before almost every movie I've watched for the last three months, with its vintage sheen, its nostalgic narration, and its awkward final freeze-frame. It's a trailer that's frustrated many, as it seemingly gives away the entire plot of the movie. But if I told you the movie follows a grumpy history teacher, a rebellious student, and a recently widowed chef, all left behind at their boarding school over Christmas, it's fairly obvious how this will go down. And that's what makes "The Holdovers" marvelous: its premise is hardly remarkable, yet its execution is delightful. It's a wonderfully spry and intelligent movie, and possibly my favourite Christmas movie, barely edging out my other choice that is also about a cantankerous weirdo who begrudgingly accepts the season's mirth.

Paul Giamatti is an absolute delight as the verbose and castigating history teacher, Mr. Hunham. The role was made for Giamatti and it shows; we're pulled into his curmudgeonly orbit, without being dragged down by his surliness. Instead, we're buoyed by Payne and Giamatti's sense of humour, that keeps us bobbing along rather than sinking with the film's many private tragedies. He's joined by Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb, the head of Barton Academy's cafeteria and the mother of one of Barton's few Black graduates. But as the film reveals almost as soon as we meet her, Lamb's son passed away during his deployment, making her the only opt-in "holdover," unwilling to return to an empty home. Lamb's tragedy is deeply personal, but it's also a larger tragedy of Barton and the nation itself, as Lamb's son is the one of the only Barton boys who needed to enlist, as he didn't have the funds to go to college. Randolph, as Mary Lamb, grounds us in the film's present, while Giamatti as Hunham attempts to spin us into ancient history.

And then there's the future, both within and without the film. Dominic Sessa, making his film debut, rounds off the trinity as Angus Tully, the defiant and sharp Barton boy left behind while his mother attends her honeymoon with his step-father. Sessa is an absolute revelation in the role, auditioning straight from one of the five schools that "The Holdovers" was shot in. Sessa's performance keep the film jubilant, with an easy charisma, bouncing off Giamatti's churlishness with aplomb. Sessa's unique blend of  naivete and cynicism gives the film its bounce and its weight, and if this performance is any indication, Sessa has a bright future.

"The Holdovers" may take place over a single winter break, but its real power is in the future it offers. It's the change these characters can embark on, the regrets they can face, the adventures they can chase. It isn't so much this Christmas that matters. It's the next one.