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  • Writer's pictureRob Ervin

Alex Reviews "The Holdovers"

Hauntingly beautiful. These are the inescapable words that repeat in my mind whenever I am thinking of my experience with The Holdovers. Yet I cannot put my finger on exactly why that is the phrase that is constant despite the extreme enjoyment that is caused by this picture.

The Holdovers are the students at a New England boarding school for the wealthy elites who, for various reasons, will not be leaving campus for the Christmas holiday and the staff members who must care for them: one being the teacher whom everyone (staff included) hates and a grieving mother unsure how to go on except to run the kitchen of the school she feels as her last attachment.

If there was a quote from David Hemingson stating that this is the best thing he would ever write, I wouldn’t be surprised. With a minimal list of characters and a washed out setting as could describe Massachusetts in winter every year, the human touch would need the perfect level of snappy dialogue and emotions to carry the over two-hour picture without feeling dull or dragged. It succeeds. It is brilliantly engaging from beginning to end covering everything from hilarity to heartbreak without ever straying from reality. Every chance the narrative has to play into an “old hat” theme, it diverts where so many stories take the “common” path. In those many instances, it adds onion-like layers and incredible depth to all aspects of the movie.

Bringing this amazing story to the visual medium is Alexander Payne, returning to the director’s chair for the first time since 2017’s Downsizing, and crafts a moving painting in film. Keeping everything true to the time period without being overt added a level of escape often overdone in other instances. It is a brilliant subtlety that Payne weaves throughout and even before the actual film begins. Even the framing and style calls back to classic films of the late 1960s and 1970s.

A good story and direction can get a decent picture made, but the acting would need to be award-winning to be a great piece of cinema. An experienced cast who understands the power of presentation and emotions would need to be on the list for such a film to become more than just a movie. Interestingly, The Holdovers proves that wrong in at least one instance.

Dominic Sessa has zero credits to his name beyond his high school theater and not only goes toe to toe with two of the best actors today but thrives to the point of elevating many scenes himself. I’m certain that he will be appearing in many things going forward and I cannot wait to see how far his career climbs. His understanding of projection and delivery is so far beyond talents who have been acting for years that it becomes captivation incarnate. I truly believed every line and emotion he presented. Rather than being a run of the mill emo kid character, which often happens, it was a joy to see teenage angst and struggle in one of the most relatable ways to ever grace the screen.

If Sessa is the passion of The Holdovers, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (The Lost City) is the heart of the story. The most likeable and good character in the film brought triumphantly into the theater by Randolph balancing expertly between the no guff lunch lady and the broken villoma while never losing who Mary Lamb is in any scene. Her overwhelming graciousness in a world that could easily turn ugly makes you want to run through a wall and cry with her.

Heart and passion cannot stand alone. It is unreal if it did and Paul Giamatti (Billions) anchors everyone to reality as the teacher we all had in some form: the authoritative jerk who was both brilliant and crass. One of the previously mentioned diversions is his character. Being the brute dictator of an empty school would be simple, but there is so much to this focus and performance to naturally invite the audience in as if to say “he’s a jerk but look deeper” with instances of repartee and standing up for what is good even in low stakes scenarios. All of which is delivered so magnificently by Giamatti that I will be upset if he is not nominated for awards when the time comes. His performance transcends the layered aspects and rockets directly into the living embodiment of human existence. A manifestation of “everyone is fighting a battle nobody knows” and it connected with me on such an emotional level that I am tearing up as I type this.

With the level of talent in and around The Holdovers, it should not surprise anyone to hear positives about the film, but I would like to leave you with a few you may not expect as reason that you should go to the theater and bring many people to see it when it debuts November 10th.

1. This is Alexander Payne’s best movie, and he has Oscars.

2. This is Paul Giamatti’s best movie, and he has 46 awards.

3. Dominic Sessa gives the best performance by a first-time actor ever.

4. Randolph, Giamatti, and Sessa give the deepest human performances I have ever seen.

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