The Holdovers – Review

The HoldoversA curmudgeonly teacher with hints of tragic past; a spoiled little rich kid who is left behind by his new stepfather; a grieving mother who cannot comprehend life without her son. These are cinematic tropes that have been done to death. We all know how it turns out – a happy ending for all after a few fights and some misunderstandings that allow us to get to know the characters on a deeper level.

However familiar we may be with the characters in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, how they all reveal their true selves is what makes this film so very charming, entertaining and thoroughly rewatchable.

In a private boarding school in the snowy North East, it’s the Christmas break. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is on “holdover duty”, meaning he is responsible for any of the boys who aren’t going home for the holidays. Onsite, too, is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook, and a small collection of students, none of whom want to be there. Particularly chagrined is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who had his suitcase packed and ready to go, only for his mother and new stepfather to change their plans and exclude him at the last minute.

But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers, cosy retelling of how you find family where you least expect it. Each of these three main characters is going through a very private pain, which manifests itself publicly in a number of ways. Hunham is loathed as a teacher, made fun of for his body odour and glass eye. He is clearly very lonely, despite his claim that books keep him company, and feels like he is not as successful in life as he perhaps could have been. Mary has lost her son – a scholarship student at the school – to the Vietnam War. A loss she sees as futile and unsurmountable. Her eventual breakdown is extremely public and extremely raw in its delivery. Angus is dealing with new familial arrangements and the fact that he seems unable to either remain in a school or make friends. The plaudits being lavished on these actors throughout awards season are entirely merited.

David Hemingson’s script is a masterclass. It draws you in with emotionally charged conversations and leaves you gasping at insults dripping with acidity and wit. Each of the characters – even those actors in supporting roles such as Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner and Jim Kaplan – are given enough screen time and dialogue to flesh out our understanding of who they are. Nothing feels two dimensional, here. Even Paul Hunham’s ranting speeches about “troglodytes” or “hormonal vulgarians” are both amusing and revealing. (Truly, Hemingson’s script has some of the best cinematic insults you will ever hear on screen.)

The Holdovers Mark Orton’s score feels cute and folksy, but not in a way that detracts from the film. It is not saccharine but melodious and warm. Set in the very last days of 1970, cinematographer Eigil Bryld and colourist Joe Gawler shot the film as if on 35mm. There are even vintage Focus Features and Miramax logos and negative “scratches” on the film’s opening. Again, this somehow adds to the warmth being created, even if director Alexander Payne has gone to great lengths to insist this is not a schmaltzy Christmas film.

The hallmark of a good work of art – whatever format that may take – is how it makes you feel. And The Holdovers will run you through the gamut of all human emotions. Yes, the dustings of snow and choral Christmas songs will make you feel wholesome. You may even laugh out loud at some of the dialogue. But you will also be moved and shocked and empathetic to the outpourings of grief, loss, loneliness and lost dreams. As Mary tenderly caresses baby clothes; as Angus looks into his father’s eyes and fears a mirror; as Paul splutters and lies his way through a conversation with a former classmate. The human soul, laid bare, is vulnerable and unpretty. That’s how The Holdovers really gets to you.

With pitch perfect performances, a fantastically lucid script and joyously vintage visuals, The Holdovers is sure to charm and challenge you. A fantastic watch, whatever the time of year.

The Holdovers is currently in UK cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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