If you can believe it, the 1970’s were half a century ago and were a very different time. Religious values at an all-time high, and prep schools being the quickest way to get rid of a kid causing trouble at home. And during Christmas, it can be really fun or it can be really traumatizing. Spending time by yourself during the holidays can be rough, lonely, and depressing. But spending time during the holidays with someone you hate can be even worse and far more taxing. There’s always plenty of tension, outbursts, and frustrating moments that just make you want to rip your hair out. But if you can imagine it, such a circumstance is the very basis of the Oscar-nominated film, The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne.
The Holdovers stars Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in this Christmas-time film set during the 1970’s at an all-boys boarding school in New England. The film follows Paul Hunham, a classic history professor who is blunt, difficult to please, hard on students, and despised by many. When he is assigned the unwanted task of chaperoning holdover students during the holiday break, he finds himself at wit’s end with one of his students, Angus Tully, a troubled boy with difficult family circumstances. As the two unwillingly spend the next few weeks together along with the school’s catering manager, they soon come to a better understanding of one another.
As with his other films, Alexander Payne doesn’t follow a strictly comedic or fully dramatic path with The Holdovers. The film tends to shift between highs and lows, tension and hilarity, and bleak outlooks and laughable moments. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to keep up with where the tone of the story intends to be at any given moment but that’s exactly what keeps the film engaging at all times. And because there are only three characters that the audience spends time with, it is easier to peel back the layers and truly understand who each of them are and what causes them to act out in the ways they do.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, for example, provides a heartbreaking performance as Mary Lamb, a woman whose grief is still too near following the loss of her one and only son. While she is perhaps the most genuine of the trio and is entertaining to watch throughout the film, Mary is the first to break down the emotional wall that keeps these characters distant from one another. It becomes clear that no matter how much time has passed, one never does stop mourning and loving those we’ve lost. Randolph brings out the broken soul we see in Mary in a way that allows the audience to move onto the rest of the trio to see how their breakthroughs will unfold.
And that brings us to the complex and dysfunctional dynamic we see between Paul and Angus. It is clear from the get-go that these two people could not be more different from each other yet so similar to each other. Giamatti and Sessa play off each other with ease, and it’s obvious that their off-screen relationship translates well enough into their on-screen relationship that is equal parts stressful and hilarious. Not only do we see them taunting each other as an attempt to make each other’s holiday vacation (or lack thereof) more miserable than ever. We also see a particularly silent connection develop between the two over time that feels slightly familial yet also strained.
At its core, The Holdovers excels in showcasing how loneliness can present itself in a multitude of ways. it be through grieving a loss, holding in a fear of getting close to someone, or unleashing resentment of changes at home through unruly behavior. What bonds Paul and Angus together is their disdain for the outside world, the awareness of how cruel people can be, and the hidden desire to connect with someone, anyone. And it’s the ability to play off one another that is seen between Giamatti, Sessa, and Randolph that makes this film work the way it does.
On the more technical side, The Holdovers is very much a work of art that is reflective in the 1970’s which is a major aspect of what makes this film feel so genuine. It isn’t just the set design and the way the audience feels like they are drawn back to that era. It’s also the soundtrack that is heard all throughout, the way the film is shot as if it were made decades ago and not two years ago. But more so, the authenticity of the film comes from the way both Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti drew inspiration from their own lives and childhoods to enhance the direction of the story as well as the performances we see. After all, what is art if not a reflection of the lives we’ve led and the morals we hold?
With everything said and done, The Holdovers isn’t a film that one would expect to see on the ballot of nominees at the Oscars. But its comedy-driven script and unorthodox method of presenting connection amongst unlikely people is what makes the film worthwhile over time and well-deserving of the praise it has received. It’s the small hidden secrets that are unveiled that uncover the true nature of characters we spend time with for nearly two hours. And it wouldn’t be surprising to find a small part of ourselves in those characters as well given the way the film pulls mischief and chaos into the mix of the story, only for it to punch us in the gut with the reality of the world and the way it can cause more pain than we realize. But if The Holdovers is a lesson in anything at all, it’s that even in a world of pain and loneliness, there is always a connection to be made that can be worth more than anything else. And that is a comforting and hopeful thought.
The Holdovers receives 4.5 out of 5 Samosas.
The Holdovers is now available to stream on Peacock.
Runtime: 2h 13m
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