The Holdovers (2023) | Review

A charming throwback to the days of New Hollywood, The Holdovers is heart-warming in the end amid a sea of stuffiness and smiles.

the holdovers poster
Source: The Movie Database

Synopsis: A New England prep school teacher stuck caring for students abandoned for the Christmas holidays bonds with one student set on pushing his limits and the grieving school cook.

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner

The Holdovers has a very deliberate pace and tone, which both sit just off my personal tastes. Its characters are well-rounded and reasonable, although each has a moment when they’re a little too stuck in their ways. Its soundtrack suits its New Hollywood style, though it rarely pushes the action or helps up the pace in lighter moments. Its dialogue is riddled with Classics quotes that are fitting for its boarding school environment and a little too highfalutin to prompt large laughs.

PAUL: This all remains entre nous. Got it? You know what entre nous means?
ANGUS: Oui, monsieur.

But even with these caveats, everything comes together rather well in the end. Once characters eventually make their choices and take their stands, the whole ride feels rewarding and true.

Paul Giamatti plays Barton Academy's resident stick-in-the-mud teacher Paul Hunham well. Hunham throws up walls at every possible opportunity, be it intellectual ones between him and his students or emotional ones between him and the rest of the academy's faculty. It takes a little too long for these to start crumbling away, but viewers who enjoy the script's humour more than me will not have this problem. Emotional heartstrings are pulled, however, once we learn about Hunham's professional life and how he may be choosing to be a big fish in a small academic pond.

PAUL: A monograph is like a book, only shorter.
MARY: I know what a monograph is.
ANGUS: Why not just write a book?
PAUL: I’m not sure I have an entire book in me.
MARY: You can’t even have a whole dream, can you?

Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Mary Lamb, the school cook, is a standout and balances light stand-offishness with teetering on the edge of misery. Mary is the great intellectual leveller for the core cast, like a new Sam Malone constantly beating back the intellectual trappings of the Diane Chambers of the world.

Dominic Sessa puts in solid work as Angus Tully, the film's chosen 'troubled boy' from a class likely full of them. In fact, four additional students are originally held over with Tully, but they're quickly ferried away on a family helicopter to enjoy a skiing holiday. While this mildly emphasises Tully's detachment from his own family, the rest of the script does enough of this in many other opportunities and a solid 15 minutes could have been saved by exorcising the extra students from the beginning.

screenshot of the holdovers
Source: The Movie Database

One solid highlight is Eigil Bryld's cinematography. We're treated to several wide scenic shots of Barton Academy, winding trips around its corridors, tracking along street sidewalks. Characters are balanced well around the many tables and halls of Barton, and on occasion they're shrunk down into tiny small clusters that re-enforce the bond they're forming with each other. Aesthetic choices for the soundtrack and titling to invoke the late-60s/early-70s of New Hollywood (including some incredibly retro studio credits) also set the film's atmosphere well.

I expect this to become a holiday regular for some people. Perhaps the majority of those people will be East-coast intellectuals who keep a copy of Meditations on their bedside table, but there will also be a healthy amount of people who connect with the strong surrogate father-son relationship at the heart here. The trio blossom and bond together whenever they have a chance to escape the academy grounds and a road trip to Boston is the real heart of this movie. Hunham and Tully are a classic 'tough love' odd couple that meant although I didn't adore The Holdovers, I certainly left with a warm smile on my face.

Source: YouTube