Monday, May 27, 2024

“THE HOLDOVERS”

THE STORY – A curmudgeonly instructor at a New England prep school remains on campus during Christmas break to babysit a handful of students with nowhere to go. He soon forms an unlikely bond with a brainy but damaged troublemaker, and with the school’s head cook, a woman who just lost a son in the Vietnam War.

THE CAST – Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph & Dominic Sessa

THE TEAM – Alexander Payne (Director) & David Hemingson (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 133 Minutes


In his latest film, “The Holdovers,” director Alexander Payne has gone to great lengths to recreate the style and feel of a motion picture from the ’70s. Right from the start, opening with retro recreations of the Focus Features’ and Miramax’s logos, it becomes evident that it’s not just the time period that’s important to Payne – it’s the nostalgic feeling it brings to the audience. Or maybe, more specifically, it’s the audiences’ sense of remembrance that Payne calls upon to help make his latest film stand out from the rest of his filmography. Even for those who weren’t around fifty years ago, “The Holdovers” evokes wistful memories of days long past in mood, style, story, and character. Here, Payne crafts a stellar coming-of-age film that’s a masterclass in balancing tone. His latest is at times charming and hilarious, but also full of melancholy in how it portrays its fully dimensional characters. In a career full of excellent Academy Award-nominated and winning work, “The Holdovers” ranks up there with Payne’s very best.

It’s 1970, and Christmas break is fast approaching at Barton Academy, a boy’s school near Boston. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), one of the most despised teachers at Barton, is chosen to stay on campus with the holdovers, those few boys who can’t return to their families for Christmas and must remain behind at the school. One such student is Angus (breakthrough newcomer Dominic Sessa), who is especially unhappy about sticking around the school for the holidays. His mom went on an extended honeymoon with her new husband and didn’t feel it was the proper time for Angus to come home. With this bitterness in mind, Angus and Paul clash immediately. Though Christmas break starts with Angus and four other students, the others are soon whisked away on a skiing vacation courtesy of one of the privileged student’s wealthy parents, leaving Angus to have Christmas with Paul. Also holding over is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook who recently lost her son and one of the school’s students in Vietnam. With no one else around, this unlikely trio begins to forge an unlikely but meaningful connection.

David Hemingson’s empathetic script seamlessly dives into the lives of its characters, helping peel back the layers of each character without ever feeling manipulative. The film’s over two-hour runtime allows Payne, Hemingson, and the cast to take their time in fully conveying the charms and faults of each one of these three characters, and the results are stupendous. Each character receives a whole arc filled with a history of pain, regret, and the tiniest semblance of hope for the future. Angus and Mary’s relationship feels so natural, a friendship born out of necessity rather than desire, and it finds unexpected depths, especially considering their commonly held disagreements with Paul’s archaic view of the world and strict behavior.

In a career filled with brilliant performances, big and small, Giamatti is as perfect as ever as Paul. It may be his most outstanding leading performance in a film, primarily due to how this sometimes unlikable character would’ve fallen apart in a lesser actor’s hands. As a teacher, Paul relishes in his students’ misery, placing himself high and above all of them due to his own secret inferiority complex. He believes he’s pushing these young men to be great, but in reality, he’s just being unnecessarily difficult and taking out a lifetime’s experience of pain and frustration on them. Paul is far from the “evil teacher” trope one has seen in other movies. He’s also surprisingly sensitive, waxing on about classical history, often with an intellectual quote at his fingertips. Despite his brilliance, his loneliness is palpable, thanks to Giamatti’s brilliantly malleable face.

Randolph has been stealing scenes in projects like “Dolemite is My Name” and “Only Murders in the Building” for years, but “The Holdovers” finds her delivering her most beautifully understated work yet. Mary is quiet and kind but sharp enough to put Paul in his place when she needs to, delivering some of the film’s funniest zingers in the process. The pain of her son’s death is still fresh for her, but she tries to keep that pain pushed down and out of the way. “The Holdovers” wisely avoids making Mary a cliched character of any sort, and Randolph delivers her best performance to date, proving to anyone yet unconvinced that she’s a star. Sessa also shines in his first-ever film role, going toe-to-toe with Giamatti and keeping up with him every step of the way. He’s an astonishing natural with an affable screen presence. He nails every dramatic and comedic moment the screenplay offers him, delivering a true breakthrough performance in the process.

“The Holdovers” is built on its thorny characters, prickling each other to some degree. And yet, there’s a pleasant charm to the film’s overall vibe due to its snowy Christmas setting. The use of holiday-themed songs and Mark Orton’s lovely score, which feels plucked directly from a decades-old movie, add to the atmosphere, placing the audience right back in the past. Payne’s understated but deliberate aesthetics are put to good use. Keeping in the vein of ’70s cinema, long zooms and cross-dissolves are commonly deployed. It slows the film’s overall pacing down, allowing the characters room to breathe when needed and for the story to unfold in an unhurried manner. Every frame of this is crafted with care, providing the audience with enough moments of gut-busting laughter and earned emotion.

“The Holdovers” skillfully avoids the downsides of melodrama and cliches at nearly every turn. It’s genuinely moving but balances this sentimentality with pitch-perfect, often biting humor and unexpected moments of character growth that feel honest every step of the way. Its wintery but inviting atmosphere is full of melancholy and warmth, giving audiences the feeling they typically would feel during the holidays. With its nostalgic storytelling style, Alexander Payne’s latest digs into universal memories and feelings of discovering who we are underneath whatever pain we desperately try to bury and the family we choose to open that pain up to. “The Holdovers” is a delightful, compassionate, and funny film most audiences won’t mind holding over for a while.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Nostalgic, hilarious, melancholy, and charming. A masterclass in balancing tone. The trio of actors are essentially perfect, especially Paul Giamatti.

THE BAD - The deliberate pace may come across as slight to anyone who needs to buy into the '70s style early on.

THE OSCARS - Best Supporting Actress (Won), Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay & Best Film Editing (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howathttps://nextbestpicture.com
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>Nostalgic, hilarious, melancholy, and charming. A masterclass in balancing tone. The trio of actors are essentially perfect, especially Paul Giamatti.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The deliberate pace may come across as slight to anyone who needs to buy into the '70s style early on.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/">Best Supporting Actress</a> (Won), <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actor/">Best Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-screenplay/">Best Original Screenplay</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-film-editing/">Best Film Editing</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"THE HOLDOVERS"