Updated: 4 days ago
Alexander Payne's latest is a heartwarming and irresistible new holiday classic
Nostalgia is easy to create in movies; you put up some musical queues and reference popular culture of the time and you instantly have viewers reminiscing. To emulate and transport a viewer to the past, however, is much harder; that is the task that Alexander Payne has undertaken in his latest film.
The Holdovers (2023) takes place at a Massachusetts boarding prep school in 1970. Strict and grumpy Professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is tasked with staying at school during winter break with those students that aren’t going home. Among them is the troublemaking, but bright Angus (Dominic Sessa) and school cook and grieving mother Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). These unlikely companions begin to warm to each other as they approach the festive holidays.
Alexander Payne has always been a director fascinated with bringing together clashing outsiders, from the principal and student in Election (1999) to the travel companions in Sideways (2004), and even the quirky family in Nebraska (2013). In The Holdovers Payne gets to his most heartwarming and cheesy, yet somehow manages to thread a predictable story of Scrooges thawing their hearts with authentic emotion. Payne and David Hemingston, who wrote the screenplay, slowly pick away at the hard exteriors of the main characters, making their transition from curmudgeons to teddy bears feel organic. The plot follows familiar beats seen in Dead Poets Society (1989) and Scent of a Woman (1992), but Payne’s immersive direction gives it a new gust of originality.
Payne’s visual style harkens back to films of the 1970s; using subtle techniques that transmit the feel of old movies. This is achieved not just with the grainy film filter, but with the editing and cinematography that uses abrupt fadeouts and quick zooms. The ingenious ways that Payne and his team pepper the visual and auditive style helps give The Holdovers the appearance of a film, lost in a vault for decades, and only unearthed now.
Payne, inadvertently, also crafts a winning Christmas movie (much to his public chagrin), using familiar holiday beats and ambience. The intelligent use of choral covers for the music, particularly helps blend the prep school atmosphere with the more fable-like narrative and time-setting. This Christmas movie pivot also prepares viewers for the inevitable convergence of the stubborn characters, making their reproachment all the more palatable, due to the leeway that the holiday genre demands of viewers.
Payne reteams with Giamatti after Sideways, and the American thespian is at his peak in The Holdovers. Giamatti takes a character that could easily have been a caricatured villain and makes him a complex and pitiable cynic. Just watch a scene where he transmits the sense of frustration, heartbreak, and acceptance with a simple blank stare. Randolph, meanwhile, inhabits a role that’s quieter than her usual work, allowing her to express depths of her acting talent, showing us the reserved and isolating consequences that pent up grief has. This is Sessa’s first ever film credit (he has previously acted in theater) and, similar to Giamatti, finds a balance to his character, who could have easily been insufferable and obnoxious; instead, Angus comes across as a charming and wounded boy that you want to comfort.
Payne delivers a simple and rather by-the-numbers holiday film, yet The Holdovers is so endearing and warm that it’s impossible to resist. It proves to be one of Payne’s most effective and winning, and delivers a career high performance from Giamatti, and a new Christmas classic to boot.