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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'The Holdovers': A Holiday Comedy That is Both Heartwarming and Heartbreaking

The holidays are a strange time for a lot of people. For some, it truly is "the most wonderful time of the year". For others, it is a time of pain, loneliness, and sadness. Alexander Payne's latest film, The Holdovers focuses on the latter group, centering on an unlikely trio, each with their own emotional baggage, who find themselves stuck in the same place over the Christmas season. The film takes place in the early 70s, and its promotional materials and overall look of the film harkens back to this time. In some ways, the film functions as a time capsule, but there is something universal in the film's characters and the issues they are dealing with. There is a heaviness to some of the film's themes, but in classic Payne fashion, these are handled in a way that doesn't feel overly maudlin, while also using dark humor to give the film some levity. The Holdovers is both one of the funniest and one of the most emotionally affecting films I've seen in a very long time, and is undeniably Payne's best film in years.

In December 1970, the students and faculty of Barton Academy, an elite prep school in New England, are preparing for winter break. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a hardnosed, grouchy history teacher, has been put in charge of watching a group of students who are unable to be with their families over the holidays. One of these students, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), is a troubled, rebellious young man who frequently butts heads with Hunham, as well as the other boys who are stuck at the school. Over the break, Paul and Angus, along with the school's head cook, Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) form an unlikely bond, while also confronting grief, isolation, and the sadness that comes from feeling stuck and having nowhere to go.

Alexander Payne's somewhat cynical worldview is part of what I love about his films, as his work often has some acidity, yet it isn't all gloom and doom. Some of his films, especially in his early days, have darker humor, and feature characters that feel realistic and deal with complex issues. Take his first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, both of which are satires that feature morally questionable characters. These two films are quite biting, and essentially lay the blueprint for the rest of Payne's career. But as time has gone on, he has added a bit more heart to his work, balancing his more misanthropic sensibilities with a fair amount of warmth. With About Schmidt and Sideways, he skews more towards the pessimism of his earlier work, but sprinkles in some emotionally resonant moments. With The Descendants and Nebraska, his trademark wit is present, but these films feel a bit more heartfelt by comparison. His previous film, 2017's Downsizing, is a bit of an outlier, as it feels like he is trying to go back to the bitterness of his early work, but it ultimately feels like a case of "you can't go home again". Thankfully, The Holdovers is a stronger effort from him, and sees him finding the right balance between heartbreaking and heartwarming.

I was a bit concerned that the 70s aesthetic that the film is going for would come across as gimmicky, but I actually enjoyed how the film immerses itself in the time period it is set in. From the retro Focus Features logo at the beginning of the film, to the digital photography disguised with a more traditional film grain, to the excellent soundtrack, the film is effortlessly tied to such a specific era. Eigil Bryld's cinematography is a major standout, as the film has such a cold, wintry look to it, and uses movement in a way that is playful in certain moments, but also quite affecting in others. I also liked Mark Orton's score, as well as some of the needledrops the film employs. The music in the film is rather comforting, adding further to the warmer characteristics of the film. The music and general look of the film make this feel more authentic as a period piece, and also serve the film's major themes well.

I was surprised to learn that this was David Hemingson's first feature-length screenplay to be produced, but it appears his long career in television has prepared him for this moment, as the script is sharply written and beautifully constructed. The dialogue is what grabbed me from the outset, as the way each of the characters talk is so distinct, and feels so genuine. This is most impressive with the character of Paul Hunham, who often speaks using academic language and an air of authority. Hunham's more verbose manner of speaking sticks out among the rest of the characters, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it could come across a bit disingenous. Thankfully, it feels perfectly in line with the character, and his creative insults and intellectual diatribes are a major highlight. The three main characters are also written so well, and the interactions between them are so strong. Each of them has their own pain that they are dealing with, and the way the film explores this is so natural and presented in a way that cuts deep. I also appreciated that this is being explored against the backdrop of Christmastime, as most films set around this time are a more joyous affair. It touches on the sadness that a lot of people experience during the holiday season, and the issues that our main three characters are dealing with are so poignant and connected with me on a deep level. The overall plot itself is simple and straightforward, but the characters are so strongly written, and the film flows so nicely that you can't help but be entranced by it. Hemingson's script lays a great foundation for the entire film, and allows the cast, as well as Payne himself, to magnificently build on it.

Circling back to Payne, this is arguably his most heartfelt film to date, and it is one of the funniest films in general that I've seen in quite some time. Save for Downsizing, I would say that he has had a pretty consistent track record, but this represents some of the best work of his career. Not only does he balance the tone incredibly well, but he also does a great job of making each moment hit perfectly. The comedy is pitch perfect, and the heavier, more emotional moments land with the proper weight. A film that is as warm-hearted as this one runs the risk of seeming too saccharine or melodramatic. Thankfully, Payne keeps the film grounded and authentic, while also staying true to his distinct voice as a filmmaker. It's one of his most assured works to date, and one of the best balances of comedy and drama I've seen in a long time.

Payne tends to get excellent performances from his actors, and this film continues this trend. Da'Vine Joy Randolph gives one of the best performances of her whole career in this film as Mary, the head cook at Barton Academy who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. This is one of Randolph's more subdued roles, but it truly shows how versatile she is as a performer. She nails the ennui and sadness that comes with losing a loved one, and has several moments that really touched me. She also gets some of the funniest lines in the film, and the performance as a whole really connected with me. I was also impressed by newcomer Dominic Sessa, who embodies the unruly teen characteristics of his role so naturally. In some moments, it feels like Sessa is just a regular teen, likely because he isn't too far removed from the character of Angus in terms of age. He feels so genuine in the role, and handles the more high-strung, angry nature of the role with a surprising amount of control for someone his age. He does get a bit shouty, but it feels perfectly in line with the character, and the moments where he does let loose do feel more intentional. It's a stunning debut performance, and one that I hope many will take notice of.

Paul Giamatti is one of my personal favorite actors, and considering that one of his best performances was in 2004's Sideways, I had a good feeling that this collaboration between him and Payne would yield great results. As it turns out, I was completely correct and then some, as this might be my favorite Giamatti performance of his entire career. He makes Paul Hunham such a fully formed, detailed, and complicated character, and there is such humanity and empathy that he injects into the role. On the page, Hunham is unlikable, snobby, and awkward, and Giamatti knows exactly how to play these characteristics to where he isn't too insufferable, nor is he a cartoonish version of an academic. The smaller details, such as his character's body odor and lazy eye, further humanizes the character, and seeing his mysterious backstory come into play near the end gives him even more dimension. He plays a lot of his cards close to his chest, but this is part of what makes Hunham such an interesting character, and part of what makes Giamatti's take on him so effective. This is undoubtedly one of my favorite performances of the year, if not the decade, and undeniably Giamatti's best work since Sideways.

The Holdovers is a film that feels like wearing a nice warm sweater on a cold winter's day. There is an underlying chill throughout the air of the film, but it is ultimately a heartfelt, comforting film that I absolutely adore. This is the type of film I can see myself watching over and over, especially during the holiday season, as it has a bittersweetness that speaks to me, and it is just such a beautiful film in general. The more I think about it, the more I love it, and I can see this film striking a similar chord in others. It may be Payne's most warm-hearted film yet, but it is also among the best films of his career.

Rating: 5/5

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