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Movie Reviews

The Holdovers ★★★★★



Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Released: 19th January 2024 (UK)

Before watching The Holdovers, all I knew about it was that it would be a Christmas comedy-drama, a brief description that made it seem like the perfect movie for me. During the European premiere of The Holdovers at the 2023 London Film Festival, the director, Alexander Payne, introduced the movie and talked about his inspiration behind making this film, saying he wanted to “make a contemporary film in the 1970s.” And that is truly the best description for this film: while set in the 70s, the questions it raises are still incredibly relevant to today’s audiences.

The Holdovers opens with a 70-style logo of its production companies, bringing us immediately back to its set period. The film is set in the early 1970s at Barton Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New England. As the Christmas break is about to begin, one of the most disliked teachers at Barton, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), is asked to stay on campus and supervise the students who will not return home for the holidays. A reluctant Paul is forced to deal with and eventually bond with one of the most rebellious and troubled students, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Also, he starts connecting with Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, who is grieving the recent loss of her son in the Vietnam War. 

More than anything, The Holdovers is a film about human connection. Forced to spend the holidays with each other, for one reason or another, the protagonists have no choice but to bond and share their life experiences, as diverse as they may be, with each other. Ultimately, when they have nothing to lose – as they are each facing their own set of challenges– in a cruel world in which none of them seems to fit in, it is in this unlikely but still heartwarming and inspiring community that they all gain something: the human connection they thought was forever lost. Similarly, this movie shows us teachers’ important role in understanding their students, particularly with its bittersweet ending that reminds the audience of how impactful a good teacher and a sound support system can be.

The Holdovers shines particularly in its writing and script by David Hemingson, thus reminding us once again that the WGA strike has ended the writers’ critical role in making – or breaking – a film. The comedy in this movie is incredibly natural. There is never a joke that feels out of place or does not land in the right way, something that is also achieved thanks to the impeccable comedic timing of the actors and their chemistry. At the same time, The Holdovers can balance comedy and drama effortlessly and very well, with various beautiful and emotional moments shared between the characters.

As the director mentioned, this is a modern film set in the past. Its themes and reflections are timely and fit the film’s historical context. One of the sentences that stayed with me the most after watching The Holdovers was something that Paul tells Angus in the film’s second half: “The world doesn’t make sense anymore; it’s on fire.” In the 1970s, as the conflict in Vietnam drew to a close, this was incredibly true, especially as the public opinion in the United States, particularly younger generations, had to come to terms with the horrific reality of the Vietnam War and all the lives lost. However, isn’t it true now as well? In a modern world shaken by wars, the climate crisis, and the rise of the far-right, this feels like a statement that also describes our current era.

A lot of this movie is about the process of grieving. Each character has to process something and is in a different stage of suffering, but the one thing they all have in common is the pain they carry with them, perhaps accentuated by the holiday period. As much as this is a film about grieving and the difficulty of moving on, The Holdovers ultimately shares a message of hope. With this film, Alexander Payne shows his audience that it is never too late to follow your dreams. The film is also a testament to the fact that we are not exclusively a product of our circumstances or of the events that happen to us. As much as Paul talks about injustice and privilege, the film also reminds us that we can continually create a better life for ourselves.

With its Christmas music, The Holdovers feels like a Christmas version of the Dead Poets Society with a Catcher in the Rye feel in the best way possible. Despite touching on many important themes, they are all cohesive in the narrative and united by the beautiful and authentic characters we see on screen. It is ultimately a movie where nothing feels out of place, as it all contributes to creating a story that many people will be able to relate to and sympathise with. It is a film that will soon become a Christmas classic and one that I cannot wait to watch again.

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