October 25, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alexander Payne
Culture Representation: Taking place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971, the comedy/drama film “The Holdovers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A professor, a student and a cook (who all are associated with an elite boarding school for boys) form an unlikely bond over their loneliness and personal problems during a Christmas holiday break.
Culture Audience: “The Holdovers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and above-average movies about unique characters who are find themselves spending time together under unexpected circumstances.
Filled with acerbic wit and superb talent, “The Holdovers” is an engaging comedy/drama about finding personal connections with unexpected people. It’s more than a Christmas movie. It’s an authentic portrait of humanity. “The Holdovers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it came in second place for TIFF’s top prize of the People’s Choice Award.
Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, “The Holdovers” takes place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971. (The movie was filmed on location in Massachusetts.) “The Holdovers” is a very impressive feature-film debut for screenwriter Hemingson, whose previous experience has been in television, with credits that include the TV series “Whiskey Cavalier” and “Kitchen Confidential.” “The Holdovers” was originally conceived as a pilot (test episode) for a potential TV series.
In “The Holdovers,” the three characters at the center of the story all have a connection to an elite boarding school for boys called Barton Academy, which is located in an unnamed suburb of Boston. Adjunct professor of ancient history Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), a longtime Barton Academy faculty member, is grouchy, strict and very demanding. Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa), a 17-year-old student, excels in Paul’s class, but Angus is a moody and rebellious loner who is often rude and sarcastic to people. Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the chief chook at Barton Academy, is sassy but compassionate and generous.
Through a series of circumstances, this unlikely trio of misfits find themselves alone for the Christmas holiday season at Barton Academy, while almost everyone else has gone away on vacation. The people who are left behind at Barton Academy during this vacation period have the unflattering nickame of “the holdovers.” It’s considered a stigma to be stuck on campus during this holiday break, because the assumption is that people in this situation don’t have any loved ones or friends who want to be with them for the holiday season.
Paul, Angus and Mary find out that they are all in emotional pain, in different and similar ways. Paul is a very cynical bachelor with a troubled past. Paul lives alone, has never been married, and he has no children. Angus (who is an only child) feels abandoned and neglected by his mother Judy Clotfelter (played by Gillian Vigman), who would rather spend this holiday season on a honeymoon with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (played by Tate Donovan).
Mary is a single mother who is grieving over the recent death of her college-age son (and only child) Curtis, a Barton Academy alum who was drafted into the Vietnam War and died in combat. Curtis’ father Harold, who was Mary’s fiancé, died in a shipyard job accident when Curtis was very young. Harold and Curtis both died before they were the age of 25. Mary doesn’t want a lot of people to see her suffering, so she’s been somewhat avoiding her loved ones, including her boyfriend Danny (played by Naheem Garcia) and her sister Peggy (played by Juanita Pearl), who lives in Boston.
“The Holdovers” has sharp writing, directing and acting throughout the movie, but it takes a while before the movie gets to the best scenes. The first third of “The Holdovers” is a series of scenes establishing the personalities of the three main characters, while the last two-thirds of the movie unpeel some of the layers of their lives, thereby revealing flaws, secrets and emotional damage that they’ve experienced. As already shown in the trailer for “The Holdovers,” there’s a point in the story where Angus and Paul spend time alone together, and Paul starts to feel like a fatherly mentor to Angus.
Giamatti has played many curmudgeonly and jaded characters before (including in Payne’s Oscar-winning 2004 dramedy “Sideways”), but Giamatti’s performance in “The Holdovers” is probably the best of the bunch. Sessa makes a very admirable feature-film debut as the complicated Angus. Randolph gives a performance that is both amusing and heartbreaking.
The first third of the movie shows these three characters within the context of how they want to present themselves to other people in Barton Academy culture. But as more Barton Academy people go away for the holidays, the vulnerabilities of Paul, Angus and Mary start to become more apparent. And these three characters become more open among themselves in showing these vulnerabilities.
There are some interesting side characters in “The Holdovers,” but their impact on the story isn’t as powerful as the relationship that evolves between Paul, Angus and Mary. Barton Academy employee Miss Lydia Crane (played by Carrie Preston) is one of the few people at the school who likes unpopular Paul. She invites Paul and Angus to her home for a crowded holiday party, where Paul and Angus start to see different sides to each other.
Paul’s boss Dr. Hardy Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman), who is Barton Academy’s headmaster, is often frustrated with stubborn and ill-tempered Paul, who is harsh and tactless in the way he communicates. However, Paul prides himself on having high ethical standards: He is the type of professor who doesn’t give special treatment to his students, based on the clout and income of the students’ parents. An early scene in the movie shows Hardy and Paul having a tense conversation, where Hardy says he disagrees with Paul’s past decision to flunk a student son of a senator, who is one of the school’s biggest donors.
Angus has a contentious or aloof attitude toward his fellow students. The student he clashes with the most is a racist bully named Teddy Kountze (played by Brady Hepner), who is a spoiled and entitled rich kid. Other student characters who are featured in “The Holdovers” include a long-haired star athlete named Jason Smith (played by Michael Provost), an amiable introvert named Alex Ollerman (played by Ian Dolley) and a quiet immigrant named Ye-Joon Park (played by Jim Kaplan). Alex is a holdover because his parents are Mormon missionaries who are busy traveling. Ye-Joon is a holdover because is parents are in Korea, and they think he is too young to travel by himself to Korea.
“The Holdovers” is filmed as if it’s a time capsule from the early 1970s (the opening title card sequence is a tribute to this era of cinema), but the themes explored in this gem of a film are timeless. It’s the type of story that doesn’t need to be made into a TV series, as it was originally conceived. The conclusion of this film is just right the way that it is.
Focus Features will release “The Holdovers” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on November 28, 2023. Peacock will premiere “The Holdovers” on December 29, 2023.