By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
In the grand scheme of over a century of moviemaking, holiday classics are few and far between. But what constitutes a ‘holiday classic?’ It certainly needs to be seasonal and take place over the winter period encompassing Christmas and other holidays. And it definitely needs to be an enjoyable film, something that resonates with audiences. But there’s something else that makes a film a holiday classic – an intangible charm or magic that extremely few films possess. The Holdovers is one of those films.
Acclaimed director Alexander Payne, whose latest film was the uncharacteristically misfiring Downsizing, returns to form with a holiday dramedy that will undoubtedly win over audiences’ hearts. The Holdovers stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, a teacher at the Barton Academy boarding school in New England who is tasked with supervising the few students remaining on campus over Christmas break. Giamatti’s curmudgeonly instructor is accompanied at the school by Mary (played by Only Murders in the Building’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, who is grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War. Together, they oversee a group of kids whose sadness about being left at school for the holidays is made worse by their teacher Hunham’s old school sensibilities.
The Holdovers unfolds to be, not just one of the year’s funniest film, but also one of the year’s most heartfelt. Starting with the humor, Payne’s film features a dry and witty sense of humor that shines as Giamatti’s teacher clashes with the boys under his care. Giamatti is the archetypal grumpy teacher, one that seems to drink a bit too much, take his job a bit too seriously, and has little patience for his students’ shenanigans. Some of Giamatti’s one-liners, straight out of a razor sharp script from David Hemingson, will remain in the memory bank for quite a while and already establish themselves as immediately quotable. Let’s just say viewers will gain an arsenal of new vocabulary to craft creative insults with. But the humor doesn’t just come from Giamatti.
Randolph, as the school’s head cook Mary, brings a deadpan sense of humor that she has perfected in the likes of People of Earth and Only Murders in the Building. Meanwhile, the film’s third lead Dominic Sessa elicits plenty of chuckles as the rebellious Angus Tully, one of the holdovers whose parents have left him at the boarding school over winter break.
It’s as the film progresses, however, that this sharp humor becomes accompanied by deeper emotionality. This comes about as new layers of the three lead characters are revealed and their relationships with one another evolve after starting so antagonistically. Although this idea of initially disagreeable characters becoming more accepting over time isn’t particularly novel (see, Step Brothers, Pirates of the Caribbean, You’ve Got Mail, to name a few), it’s executed with such organic delicacy here by Payne and company.
Exceling in both humor and heart, The Holdovers is elevated to whole other level with its embrace of the holiday season. Set during the Christmas period with low temperatures and snow covering everything, the film possesses an undeniably cozy feeling. Taking place on such a massive campus while mostly focusing on just a trio of characters plays into the film’s coziness and fosters a real intimacy perfect for a holiday film like this. Moreover, Paul Giamatti’s grumpy teacher bears more than a few similarities to Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which proves to be a fitting parallel given both stories’ emphasis on redemption amidst the Christmas season. It’s rare that a new film goes down as a holiday classic, but The Holdovers is definitely a contender for such a title.
So much of The Holdovers works due to the performances of and chemistry between its three leads. Giamatti, reuniting with his Sideways director Payne, has never been better than he is here. With such subtle gestures and seemingly menial lines, Giamatti is able to convey incredible depth about his character, all while still delivering some great jokes throughout. Giamatti is partnered with Randolph, whose performance as the grieving mother feels so genuine and loving. Randolph is terrific in the variety of roles she takes on, but The Holdovers is the best example yet of her acting abilities. Last but not least is Dominic Sessa, who puts himself firmly on the map with his performance as Angus Tully. Sessa’s relationship with Giamatti’s character is the emotional core of the film and, as such, so much of the success of The Holdovers depends on Sessa delivering an emotionally complex and frustrated yet empathic performance. This proves to be no issue as Sessa takes this sizable task in his stride, even at times outshining his two stellar co-stars.
The Holdovers is the rare feature that excels with both humor and heart. Although not particularly novel in any way, Alexander Payne’s latest film sees the director return to form with an undeniably feel-good holiday tale. Paul Giamatti takes the lead as a grumpy teacher with far more inner depth than initially apparent, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph excels as a grieving mother and young Dominic Sessa impresses at the heart of the film. Whether it because of its extraordinary charm or instantly quotable lines, The Holdovers has quickly become a holiday classic.