The Holdovers Telluride Review: In a much-anticipated reunion nearly two decades after the hit film “Sideways,” director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti have teamed up again for “The Holdovers,” which recently premiered at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. The film, set at a fictional New England prep school in 1970, offers an emotional journey that, although predictable, delivers genuine laughs and a dose of ’70s nostalgia.
“The Holdovers” is a story of unlikely friendships formed during the holiday season. The film centers around Mr. Hunham, a despised teacher portrayed by Giamatti, Angus, a socially awkward yet academically excellent student played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, and Mary, the school’s head cook, portrayed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. The plot unfolds as these characters, who are stuck at school over the Christmas break, gradually open up to each other, sharing their secrets and evolving in the process. The film doesn’t break new ground in storytelling but entertains the audience with its emotional depth and humor.
Mr. Hunham is almost universally hated by both students and faculty. He assigns a new chapter for students to read over the holiday, making him even more unpopular. Angus was excited for a vacation with his mother in St. Kitts, but a last-minute change left him stuck at school for the break. Mary, the cook, still mourns her son, who died in Vietnam and chooses to spend the holiday at Barton Academy, her son’s former school.
The trio, initially at odds, eventually find common ground. Angus, who was boasting about his vacation plans, is humbled when his mother cancels their trip. Mr. Hunham finds this amusing but soon warms up to the young student. Meanwhile, Mary brings a nurturing influence into the mix. As they spend time together, each undergoes personal growth. Angus matures, Mr. Hunham discovers empathy, and Mary finds a semblance of peace.
Director Payne has cited the 1935 French film “Merlusse” as an inspiration for “The Holdovers.” However, the movie also takes cues from the work of Hal Ashby and other filmmakers of the ’70s. The film successfully evokes the aesthetic of the era, even reminding viewers of the 1970’s “Love Story.”
Paul Giamatti delivers a performance that’s so natural that he makes Mr. Hunham’s acerbic wit seem effortless. Da’Vine Joy Randolph portrays Mary with a depth that adds weight to the narrative. Although a newcomer, Dominic Sessa avoids the pitfalls of young actors, delivering an authentic performance as Angus.
“The Holdovers” may not bring anything groundbreaking to the table, but it excels in its execution. The film is a comfortable watch, blending humor and emotion in an entertaining and nostalgic package. The characters are well-rounded, and the performances are strong across the board. It’s a satisfying comeback for Payne, whose last film six years ago didn’t quite hit the mark.
If you were a fan of the Payne-Giamatti collaboration in “Sideways,” “The Holdovers” is likely to resonate with you. While it may not challenge the viewer with a novel storyline, it offers an engaging experience that many will find worth watching in theaters rather than waiting for a streaming release. After all, good storytelling is not always about surprising the audience; sometimes, it’s about delivering a well-crafted narrative that entertains — and “The Holdovers” does just that. [B-]