You Are (Not) Alone: Our Review of ‘The Holdovers’

Posted in Theatrical by - November 03, 2023
You Are (Not) Alone: Our Review of ‘The Holdovers’

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is a student at the fictional Barton boarding school. He sits in disbelief listening to his professor, Hunham (Paul Giamatti). Hunham tells him and his fellow titular holdovers that the school closed the gym for the winter becaus eof its bewly buffed floors. And so, they’ll have to have PE outside, in the Christmas cold. After all, Hunham says, the Romans did the same, but naked and sweating. The school calls these kids the holdover. For one reason or another, their parents aren’t picking them up from school over the holidays. The school sticks them under Hunham’s care. He takes this guardianship job because one of the other professors skipped his turn, claiming his mother has lupus. Not that he was going anywhere for Christmas anyway. With them is the school’s cafeteria manager, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), staying in memory of her Vietnam vet son.

This Christmas break seems tolerable until one of the holdovers’ father flies over, offering to take the kids to a skiing trip. All of them can go because of their parents’ permission except for Tully, whose mother didn’t even bother to pick up the phone for him. A deus ex machina for most but not for him. This event then sets the pieces for the rest of Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. It’s a film that, as dramedies are, is the right amount of bittersweet. Viewers can relate to acts of God changing our Holiday plans. And we can definitely relate to a teenage boy stealing the school’s master keys to sneak into the kitchen’s freezer to eat ice cream. Payne captures the beauty within the otherwise ugly feeling of loneliness. Through Hunham, The Holdovers shows itself as a film that puts a spin on old and new adages.

Or at least, The Holdovers presents those adages earnestly enough for viewers to believe in them again. Hunham finds a common ground with Tully, reminding us that cinema is just as much about compromise as it is about conflict. The film also puts a spin on that tweet about men learning, or in Hunham’s case, teaching students about the Ancient Rome instead of going to therapy. This is, after all, on brand for an Ancient Civilizations professor like Hunham. I may be reaching here, but this film, in its own way, finds connections between Ancient Rome and post Civil Rights America. These three characters are citizens with lives that are more precarious than others because of one thing that gives them less privilege.

Film prognosticators anticipated The Holdovers to be the TIFF flop until it ended up being the exact opposite. It helps that Payne uses a more subtle hand here, a thing that comes to filmmakers as they progress. Soft editing does wonders as well as the occasional zoom outs that give the film a 70s feel. A lot of things go into making a film that seems simple like this one. And pleases critics like this one. One of those ‘pleasant’ elements include the performances, which add the edge that will remind viewers of Payne’s early work. Randolph is a versatile actress who can fit into any wavelength, and here she can tell a story with one look. Giamatti finds new ways to interpret the intellectual archetype that we first saw in Sideways. So of course, he’s great here, fleshing out the complex character in David Hemingson’s script.

The Holdovers comes to Toronto theatres on November 3.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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