The Holdovers

The confidence in director Alexander Payne’s work is instantly evident at the onset of his film. That confidence is present in movies like “The Descendants,” “Nebraska” and “Sideways” where he first collaborated with Paul Giamatti. His latest, “The Holdovers,” might be his most confident work and one of Giamatti’s best performances. Not only does “The Holdovers” shine as one of the year’s better films with wit, sarcasm, heartbreak, and genuine characters, but it will also become an instant holiday classic. You will have a smile or a grin within the first 15 minutes of running time. Most of Payne’s films feature carefully selected songs to fit the mood, theme, or era instead of a traditional musical score. He succeeds again with carefully curated tunes from the late 1970s.

The most despised teacher on campus just got stuck with holdover duty. When some children can’t get home for winter break, they are called holdovers, and the headmaster chooses one unlucky faculty member each year to babysit. History’s Paul Hunham (Giamatti) makes the already miserable left-behinds, or hormonal vulgarians as he refers to them, even more so with his strict policies and lack of rule-bending. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) has no one to spend Christmas with and challenges Hunham in the most unlikely ways. Queen of the school cafeteria, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is also stuck with the two misfit males, fighting her own holiday blues.

The numerous snarky one-liners and genuinely moving scenes beg rewatching and put this film on a trajectory to become an instant holiday classic.

Confidence, great music, stellar casting, and the final cornerstone of a great Alexander Payne film is how he walks the razor-thin edge between comedy and drama. What typically starts off as hilarious quickly turns dramatic and usually ends bittersweet. It’s not uncommon to laugh hysterically one minute and bawl your eyes out the next in a Payne film, and “The Holdovers” is no exception. It will be one of the few films in the 2023 awards race that you can put anyone in front of, and they will enjoy it. The numerous snarky one-liners and genuinely moving scenes beg rewatching and put this film on a trajectory to become an instant holiday classic. It’s also a story with themes and anecdotes that will hit differently at varying ages or experiences in life.

The attention to detail is an undercurrent of the film’s success. The vintage typewriters, the long hair, and every wardrobe piece are very lived in, making the audience feel welcome. While “The Holdovers” starts with a solid, energetic presence and Giamatti throwing off the greatest insults and backhanded compliments, it slows pace halfway through when things get serious. While the energy of the third act doesn’t quite match what we fall in love with initially, by this point, Payne already has you hooked on everything he delivers. The film serves as a reminder of Giamatti’s immense talent and cinematic presence. What makes The Holdovers most memorable is the fantastic discovery of Dominic Sessa making his acting debut and a nuanced, scene-stealing performance from Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Final Thought

“The Holdovers” is Payne and Giamatti at their very best: a must-see, an instant classic, something for everyone.


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