Rob Reviews "The Holdovers"
When I was in college, I had to stay in my dorm room during Spring Break due to my work schedule, so I can only imagine what it would have been like if I were younger and it was the other end of the year. Pair that with a director in Alexander Payne who seems to specialize in off-the-beaten-path storytelling and writer David Hemingson in a completely different type of story than he may be known for, The Holdovers actually delivers in a surprising and unexpected way.
Paul Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a very unpopular teacher at an all-boys boarding school in 1970 who winds up being the faculty member for five boys whose parents are unable to spend the two-week Christmas break with them. Living in the campus infirmary because the school wants to save money on heating costs, Hunham structures their time for studies much to their chagrin while their food is rationed by cafeteria worker Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). After an unexpected turn of events, only troublemaker Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa) remains as the three of them learn from each other in unexpected ways.
If I had to try to describe this film, it would be A Christmas Carol without the ghosts and multiple characters carrying different versions of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Hunham has the “bah, humbug” part, Tully carries the “I hate everyone because of things that I have been through” part, and Mary Lamb carries the part of Scrooge dealing with loss that put him where he did on that life-changing Christmas Eve. Combined with a very clever way to establish its ‘70s aesthetic frames this brilliant script and absolute powerhouse performances perfectly. Giamatti is spot-on in both casting and delivery as the teacher that while stuck in his ways feels he constantly has to prove himself by trying to cement his legacy through his students (and the backstory DOES piece itself together as the film progresses), while Sessa’s Angus Tully is the ideal foil to him in a way that is not “you remind me of me at your age” and more “you were the guy I really didn’t want to be around at your age, and I’m going to fix that for you”. On the surface, it would see like Randolph’s Mary Lamb is a character that is simply there to secure the logic of their situation, but she has layers that are very important to the story itself in a portrayal that his identifiable and heart-breaking at the same time.
It would be very easy for a film like this to fall into the cookie-cutter holiday story, but this one keeps its roots in honest struggle and realistic response that I highly respected. One of the things I really enjoyed the most is how its exposition isn’t spoon-fed in a number of monologues strung together to do the math for the audience; there are constant context clues as the story unfolds where even the ancillary characters feed that narrative in a very natural way that we all have found out about people in everyday life. There is a lot of depth to these characters (even more than has to be to get my attention in the best of ways) that borderlines on character study without stepping into an arena that this film isn’t really meant to be.
I have spoken to others in the film critic community that have told me that this is one (if not THE) of their favorite films of 2023, and while I may not be fully in agreement there, The Holdovers is a film that is not only a great holiday film for those that don’t need things candy-coated for them but also for those that truly enjoy film in general in a time where we are seeing non-stop action or being bathed in color palettes on the big screen. Is this one that I will say needs to be seen in a theater? Probably not, but any way that this film can get the love and respect it deserves is fine by me.