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The Holdovers

Released 2023. Director: Alexander Payne

IF YOUR IMPRESSION OF THE HOLDOVERS is that of an old-fashioned comedy with belly laughs and physical gags as it’s being inaccurately promoted, you might want to know that there’s a lot more to comic drollery. The Holdovers is funny, mature, retro and witty, a sugar-free throwback cinema involving people who can’t stand each other.

This will also go down as a Christmas movie to be remembered. Taking place in the final two weeks of the year, there’s a serving of seasonal festivities, a lot of snow and more than a shovel load of issues and situations to reckon with.

As students and faculty of Barton Academy prepare to break for the Christmas holidays, for various reasons some of them have no choice but to remain at the boarding school for a miserable fortnight. They’re the “Christmas orphans” or holdovers.

History teacher and resident misanthrope Paul Hunham, being single with no family (or friends, for that matter), is once again designated as guardian. Out of the five despondent boys left in his care, four are released two days later when the father of one of them, some industry tycoon, arrives to fly them away in his private helicopter. The unfortunate and extremely frustrated student left behind is 17-year-old Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa scores an A for his first role) because Mr Hunham could not reach his mother on the phone for permission.

Angus is already upset with Mr Hunham for making him study for a make-up history test. To get stuck with the insufferable walking encyclopaedia for a fortnight feels like a prison sentence.

The only other person at the school is Mary, the widow who runs the kitchen. Mary’s son, a recent graduate of Barton, was killed in duty in Vietnam. Still in mourning, Mary decides to stay in the school to cook for the men as she doesn’t wish to be alone at home. 

So we have a situation where people who don’t have much in common with each other, maybe even dislike their company, are forced to share living spaces and meal times together. Just how should they behave? That’s when something surprising could happen in the hands of a skilled storyteller, as is the case with The Holdovers, beautifully written by David Hemingson and directed by Alexander Payne in an insightful, laidback manner.

The first thing you notice as the movie begins is the old Universal Pictures logo used in the 1970s (for those of us old enough to remember). Everything else that follows, from typeface to colour palette to aspect ratio and small touches here and there, make The Holdovers look, sound and feel like a movie not only set in 1970 but came out of a movie studio around the same time. The aesthetics, folksy music and attention to period detail throughout the movie is evocative of its era. The clicks, pops and scratches on film add to the mood and style.

As he has skilfully demonstrated in his previous movies mixing comic and sentiments, from Election (giving Reese Witherspoon her breakout role) to Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants and Nebraska, The Holdovers features ordinary folks on a journey (literal or metaphorical) and in their interactions we glimpse their humanity as well as truth in dealing with people you love, despise, or generally don’t give a toss about.

Paul Giamatti is in his elements playing a scholar of ancient civilisations whose idea of academic diligence would be described as torture by his students. The self-satisfied intellectual with a habitual slight roll of the eye is often sarcastic and unbearable, blessed with cruel wit he expels with great relish, describing his students as “rancid philistine”, “reprobates”, “hormonal vulgarian” and the headmaster “penis cancer in human form.” Look away if you only ever watch Christmas movies by Hallmark.

Hunham has also grown accustomed to his own company, settled for a life he no longer complains about or aspires for anything more. A hopeful flicker of a romance with the headmaster’s secretary Lydia (an irrepressible Carrie Preston) is quickly and sadly snuffed out before it even started. There’s more to Mr Hunham that the man has hidden away from everyone around him that we don’t discover until a level of trust has been established between the characters, and by extension, the audience.

This, I suppose, is one of the points of the movie; taking the time to get to know the people in our orbit. It’s easy to judge based on superficial detail and shallow interactions but understanding and empathy requires time, effort and sincerity.

To pass their time after supper, Mr Hunham and Mary would watch The Newlyweds Game on TV, unsurprised that the couples are often mistaken about their spouse. When people get the details wrong about the one person closest to them, what does it say about these three who have no interest beyond the small circle of isolation they draw around themselves?

Angus’ anger goes deeper than the feeling of abandonment by his mother at Christmas. There’s something the family is ashamed to talk about and the boy would risk expulsion to bring it to light. His impromptu trip to Boston with Mr Hunham leads to a poignant revelation. Da’Vine Joy Randolph gives Mary a meditative, Zen-like calmness in processing her loss and loneliness as she re-enters her family circle, no longer closing herself off.

These three unhappy people, thrown together in their personal winter of discontent, discover against their better judgment that life has a few surprises when you open up a little. Movies about people doing something kind for others may sound trite but when the characters grow and change as they show you the truth of what makes them who they are and why they behave the way they do, their story transcends seasonal platitudes you want to invite them home for Christmas.

Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.

1 Comment

Jan 27

Love this film....melancholic humour at its best!

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