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The Holdovers (A Movie Review)


Starring Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Andrew Garman, Naheem Garcia, Stephen Thorne, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Darby Lily Lee-Stack, Bill Mootos, Dustin Tucker, Juanita Pearl, Alexander Cook, Liz Bishop, Cole Tristan Murphy, Will Sussbauer and Carter Shimp.

Screenplay by David Hemingson.

Directed by Alexander Payne.

Distributed by Focus Features. 133 minutes. Rated R.

Screened at the 2023 Philadelphia Film Festival.

I saw quite a few films at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. Some of them were very good. Others were kind of a disappointment. A couple of them I actively disliked. However, I can say one thing with complete confidence: The Holdovers was the best, most enjoyable film that I saw at this year’s fest. By far.

The Holdovers reunites actor Paul Giamatti and director Alexander Payne, nearly 20 years after working together on their Oscar nominated film Sideways. (It got five nominations including Best Picture. Payne won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.)

The Holdovers may even be a better film than Sideways.

The Holdovers takes place in the early 1970s – specifically the holiday season leading from 1970 into early 1971 – and it feels like a film from that decade, arguably the best ten years of moviemaking in film history. Specifically, this film is reminiscent of the work of the late, great Hal Ashby, who spent that decade making the classic films Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979).

The film takes place in a stuffy old boy’s boarding school in New England. Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is a former student who landed there as a teacher after college. However, he’s been there for decades, and if he ever enjoyed teaching, that was long ago now. He is completely jaded and angry about life and school politics, and he tends to take his bitterness out on his students, which has made him the most disliked teacher on campus.

Every year during the week from Christmas to New Years, the school is closed as the students return home to spend the holidays with their families. The holdovers referred to in the title refer to those few students who have nowhere to go. They must stay on campus under the supervision of one teacher, and the boarding school’s petulant principal has assigned this task to Hunham as revenge for Hunham flunking the child of one of the school’s biggest benefactors.

Also staying to prepare food is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a cafeteria worker who is in mourning for her son, who was recently killed in Vietnam. Therefore the solitude of spending the break at the mostly empty school appeals to her.

At first there are about six or seven boys stuck there, but one of the boys’ rich fathers agrees to take the boys on a skiing holiday. Only one boy is unable to reach his parents for permission, Angus Tully – played by first-time film actor Domenic Sessa, who was discovered in a similar school’s acting program.

Therefore the three of them must try to co-exist over the week.

Professor Hunham and Tully in particular tend to chafe upon each other. (Mary mainly seems to be a peacekeeper.) Tully acts out and Hunham tries with little success to punish him and keep him occupied. However, slowly but surely, they get to know each other a bit and realize that they are more alike than they want to admit. They start to spend a bit of time off campus and learn about each other, coming to have a grudging respect for each other, even kind of (gulp!) liking each other.

I won’t go into the adventures (if you could call them that) that they come to experience in this time when they are mostly cut off from the rest of the world. All I will say is that this is a look at lonely people and losers which manages to be heartwarming without straying into sappiness.

Sometimes certain people – and certain movies – slip into your life with little warning or expectation and they open you up to bigger and better things. The Holdovers is one of those films. I hope you invite it into your lives with open arms.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: November 10, 2023.

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