THE HOLDOVERS Settles in for a Long Winter’s Emotional Journey

“I find the world a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me.”

As a lover of cinema, God knows I would never want anything but the utmost success for any and every film that deserves it. This is especially true for The Holdovers, one of the year’s most beautiful offerings that’s full of character, style, and the kind of heart that still makes one believe in a kind of cinema that many feel has been lost in the direct-to-streaming age. I want The Holdovers to succeed, and I want it to find its audience. But there’s something so incredibly charming, genuine, and intimate about this tale of three lost souls who find each other and themselves during the most emotional time of year that I fear would be diluted and lost if exposed to a widespread audience. Don’t misunderstand me, I would love it if everyone walked away from The Holdovers feeling just as touched as I was. But I would also be just fine if it remained a special gem of a movie that gets continuously discovered by those who feel like it was made solely for them.

The Holdovers takes place in a snow-covered northeastern boarding school for boys called Barton where the faculty and staff are looking forward to departing for the Christmas break, especially Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a caustic history teacher whose only wish is to be left alone for the holidays. But Paul finds his simple dreams dashed when he is drafted into being left in charge of Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), the lone remaining student who has nowhere to go for the break. Together with kitchen manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is still mourning the loss of her son, the trio settles in for a Christmas none of them asked for.

One of the most intoxicating aspects of The Holdovers is how much it borrows from the filmmaking styles of the 1970s. Anyone who caught the film’s trailer before release would know this going in. But from the opening moments when the score and title cards start up, the audience finds themselves smack dab in the middle of the decade which the film has managed to bring to life once more. The cinematography, costumes, and all the other aesthetics are each seeped into the time and are matched in ways that can’t be captured on the screen outright. The movie’s tone is a wonderful blend of both poignancy and humor, with all of its moments evolving organically. Meanwhile, the narrative structure adopts a free-flowing sensibility, allowing the story to travel where it naturally should rather than hitting expected plot points. The Holdovers also proves itself to be a worthwhile echo of the times through the sense of isolation and uncertainty felt by people who are simply existing in the only ways they know how. Yet despite the homage it pays to the era of cinema it’s so clearly in awe of, none of the 70s flourishes ever overwhelm or sacrifice any story or character moment for the sake of style. 

Style aside, it’s the characters that make The Holdovers as involving a film as it is. Each of the three has accepted the notion that society has written them off and made each of them into a stereotype. But Paul, Angus, and Mary are such richly drawn portraits of the kinds of people found in the real world with great idiosyncrasies and hidden depths that no one would see unless they stopped and looked closely. These are people whose fears don’t have to do with loneliness or being misunderstood. Instead, it’s the suspicion that where they are in the current moment is the most the universe has to offer them. The Holdovers features one of my favorite storytelling themes; that of broken people finding one another. However, instead of helping to mend each other, Paul, Angus, and Mary give each other the space and belief that they can mend themselves. While one character is grieving, another is lost, and the other is afraid. Both Paul and Angus are stunted youths of sorts and their forced pairing gives way to an unexpected coming-of-age tale for both of them. Meanwhile, Mary’s best moments come when she’s by herself. Free from her cooking and managing duties, the times when she’s forced to be alone with her grief are when she’s at her most open as a human being.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better collection of acting teams this year than this one. Each performer is so utterly committed to their character and exhibits a true kinship with the broken person they’ve been charged with bringing to life. Giamatti balances a true wit along with a genuine longing in what may be the performance of his career, while newcomer Sessa digs into Angus’s pain and disappointment with an honesty that keeps him compelling. Finally, Randolph, an actress whose versatility continues to impress, gives such a radiance and strength to Mary, exploring her character’s pain in the most delicate of ways. 

In today’s landscape, it seems that a film experience isn’t considered complete or whole unless the audience watching can relate to the characters on the screen. In 2023, characters must be relatable, likable, and possess no flaws that might be considered dark or ugly to be sure that audiences reward them with sympathy. But The Holdovers doesn’t ask for audience sympathy. Instead, what director Alexander Payne and writer David Hemingson are asking for their characters is empathy; empathy for them as people who carry with them complexities both exposed and hidden. This is a movie that knows the majority of those watching cannot on the surface relate to a rich prep school kid, a stuffy teacher who doesn’t have time for anyone on the outside, or a woman having trouble showing the grief that’s inside her. Yet the people in The Holdovers still manage to touch us in so deeply human a way, that it doesn’t matter whether or not we can relate to their pain; we can feel it.

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