This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie/series/feature being covered here wouldn't exist.
BY ALEX GILSTON OCTOBER 16, 2023
Christmas is the coziest time of the year. It amplifies togetherness amongst family and friends alike, to help us take stock of the time that has passed. All of our achievements, failures, and experiences - whether positive or negative - are poured out over a hearty meal and drinks. It’s also a time of mixed emotions for many, because Christmas is just as much a time to remember the people we have lost. The holidays are also steeped in nostalgia, and there is nothing more nostalgic than a Christmas film. When someone asks what is your favourite you can fire an answer off instantly. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers channels all of this and more, wrapped up and tied with a tender ribbon.
Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is an uptight teacher at a boarding school in New England. It’s coming up to the Christmas holidays and he is tasked with staying on campus to look after “The Holdovers” - the students who don’t have a place to go home to. Over the course of the two weeks he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Angus (Dominic Sessa), a student staying at the school for Christmas, and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook.
It’s a testament to The Holdovers that it's able to spin so many plates at once without a single one slipping. It approaches loneliness, grief, growing up, and the feeling of being stuck in one place unable to break free in an emotive way. Exploring so much could be a cause for worry, however it gives each one the time and space it deserves to simmer throughout the plot, all leading up to satisfying conclusions.
As the central trio become closer you also feel a similar sense of camaraderie with them. You are invited to share in the connection they are making with each other, becoming another member of the group. By The Holdovers’ conclusion you will be rooting for them all to find their equilibrium - no matter where that might take them.
As well as having a beautiful emotional pull, The Holdovers is hilarious. David Hemingson’s screenplay is sharp and quick witted especially in its observational gags. Most of the laughs come from Paul Giamatti’s dead-pan line delivery. His character isn’t fully clued up on the right things to say in social situations, and often harks back to moments from ancient history - the subject he teaches - which he imagines fits into a conversation. It’s the fact that it rarely does, however, which makes it so funny.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a more grounded presence in The Holdovers. Her character Mary has recently lost her son - who attended the school she works at - in the Vietnam War. Randolph’s performance ebbs and flows as she struggles to move on both physically and emotionally. This is also stopping her from seeing her pregnant sister. To see her deal with this emotion throughout and help herself, whilst also helping Paul, is a joy to watch. Dominic Sessa marks his debut in The Holdovers and he is remarkable. Like both Giamatti and Randolph he’s able to bring the silliness but also fiercely dominates his deeper scenes.
It’s not often that a Christmas film comes out these days that inspires you with the magic of the classics. The Holdovers has broken that Christmas classic spell as it instantly settles itself alongside films that will be remembered forever. It happens to simply be a film that’s set at Christmas, and by not bogging itself down on trying to be one it ends up succeeding as such.