There is an old cliche in film reviewing, "I laughed. I cried". With The Holdovers, I found that cliche fit. I did laugh. I did cry. A well-acted, well-written, well-directed film, The Holdovers delights and moves, even if it goes on longer than it perhaps should.
Barton Academy, 1970. As staff and students at the prep school prepare to close for the Christmas holiday, there will be a skeleton crew to keep watch over the few students who will have to stay at Barton. These students, colloquially known as "holdovers", are watched over by one teacher and one cook. This year, it is kitchen supervisor Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who teaches ancient history to, in his words, "philistines". Hunham is open about his overall contempt for the students: he calls them philistines to their faces.
Not that his Barton students know what a philistine is or care either about Hunham or ancient history. They just want to move up in life, no knowledge required. All but one of Hunham's students gets a failing grade. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) passes, but he is equally disinterested in things. Much to his horror, Angus is a last-minute holdover, his mother and stepfather cancelling his trip so they could go on a delayed honeymoon.
As Tully, a frenemy, a jock with hair too long for his father's liking and two child students (a Korean and Mormon) are forced to stay, Hunham sees no reason why they can't be learning, working and exercising during this break. Fortune smiles on the group, however, when Jason Smith (Michael Provost), the hippie jock, leaves early when his father finally overlooks Jason's long hair. Mr. Smith has sent his helicopter and agreed to take every student whose parents agree to go with them. Everyone manages to reach their parents for permission, except for Angus.
Now with both Hunham and Tully angrier at the situation, they slowly come to terms with each other and themselves. Mary, for her part, reconciles herself to the death of her son, Curtis, who was killed earlier in the year in Vietnam. As the break goes on through Christmas and New Year's Day, the three of them reveal secrets, accept things as they are, and find resolution to their various issues.
The Holdovers is firmly set in the early 1970's, starting from its opening credits to the overall aesthetic. We are so immersed in this time period, yet The Holdovers never seems dated or stuck in the past. Rather, it is one of the freshest, most original films of 2023, in turns funny and heartfelt. It is a credit to director Alexander Payne how well he navigates his cast and keeps the film going.
This is Paul Giamatti's best performance out of so many wonderful performances that he has given. As Paul Hunham, he is acerbic, aloof, cutting. "I don't understand," Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) states when Hunham gives his class schoolwork over the holidays. Without missing a beat, Hunham retorts in a dry, dismissive manner, "That's glaringly evident". What makes Giamatti's performance so brilliant is that he makes Hunham into a flawed yet fully formed person. Other actors might have made him perpetually sardonic or deliberately cruel. Giamatti, however, makes him more rigid but not without sense. He values knowledge and loathes these wealthy scions who coast through life without any effort. He may be blunt to the point of insulting, but as The Holdovers moves, we see how he cocooned himself.
Giamatti makes Paul, if not cuddly, at least understandable, almost relatable, in his flaws and quirks. Moreover, we see the gradual shift in his nature and outlook. It is a subtle shift, best captured from when he refers to his temporary ward as "Mr. Tully" to "Tully" and finally "Angus". We get wonderful moments of acting from Giamatti, some which just have his face tell us. When he sees the Barton employee that he imagines might be interested in him kiss someone else, he turns away to face the audience. The look of sadness and resignation is deeply affecting.
Randolph more than holds her own as Mary, who is funny and heartbreaking. At one point, she remarks to Paul, "You can't even dream a whole dream, can you?" after hearing what he would like to do if he weren't at Barton. Her best scene is at the Christmas party she, Paul and Angus attend. Slightly inebriated, she finally allows herself to grieve for her son. The next day, she remarks to Paul that she had "cocktail flu", the best euphemism for a hangover I have heard.
Sessa in a standout debut performance is equal to acting alongside these veterans. Angus is in turns maddening and lonely, guarding secrets and sadness behind his sarcasm.
David Hemingson's screenplay is sharp and funny without being saccharine or cynical. It keeps to their characters and how they would speak, but it also gives each character a complexity and growth through their time together. Paul, for example, explains to a store Santa the origin of St. Nicholas of Myra. It is true to how he sees the world but still manages to be funny without making Paul look bonkers. Paul's kiss-off to his hated schoolmaster is one of the best kiss-offs in film, showing a wit behind the goings-on.
If there is an issue with The Holdovers, it is the length. It does feel longer than its two-hour-plus runtime. I understand that the first set of holdovers was there to set characters, but I think that section could have been cut.
That, however, is a minor flaw. The Holdovers is a delightful, intelligent film. You care about these characters, even with their flaws and quirks. A film that has you chuckling one moment, quietly sighing the next, it is a nice time staying with The Holdovers.