The Holdovers unfolds in the heart of New England, circa 1970, within the walls of Barton, an exclusive all-boys boarding school. It’s the kind of place where students who can’t return home for Christmas find themselves under the begrudging care of Paul Hunham, a sour and pompous instructor portrayed by Paul Giamatti. Hunham teaches ancient civilizations and prides himself on being a principled educator who isn’t swayed by political influence, even if it means failing the children of senators. He’s the kind of man who can deliver lines like, Such are the vicissitudes of life and Listen, you hormonal vulgarian! with a straight face. He exudes a distinctive odor, and his penchant for spouting Greek and Latin phrases seems more driven by spite than camaraderie. In short, he’s a teacher who can read everything except the room.
The students, on the other hand, are no walk in the park. They set traps for Hunham’s arrogance and employ their fathers to put pressure on the school administrators, who, in turn, intensify their scrutiny of him. Hunham’s use of a glass eye only makes him more laughable to them. Now, he finds himself stuck with five misfits who have nowhere else to go during the holiday break. Just as it seems the movie will follow the familiar trope of a clever schoolboy caper pitting cunning brats against a knowledgeable curmudgeon, it throws in a twist.
The unexpected twist is a laugh-out-loud Christmas miracle that whisks away four of the boys at the end of the first act, leaving one, Angus Tully, played by Dominic Sessa, behind because his parents are unreachable. The movie chooses to stay behind as well, and even though it means spending two more hours with this moody, quarrelsome duo, it’s a decision you won’t mind.
The film is in the capable hands of Alexander Payne, who both directed and co-wrote the script with David Hemingson. Payne excels in portraying complex, moody characters, and “The Holdovers” crackles with energy right from the start. The humor is sharp, with a touch of freshness and wisdom. The kids appear slightly older than their characters, and Payne’s emotional finesse adds depth to their interactions.
This is Payne’s eighth feature-length film, and his confidence shines through. The story unfolds with the weight of personal tragedy, yet each scene maintains a buoyant quality. Payne possesses a unique touch, blending crassness with courtesy, humor with revenge, pettiness with justice, and a touch of sweetness that adds dimension to the characters.
Paul Giamatti, who previously collaborated with Payne, delivers a performance that goes beyond the archetype of a tweedy intellectual. Giamatti plays Hunham, a complex character with depth and surprises. His interactions with other characters, particularly Mary Lamb, portrayed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Angus Tully, played by Dominic Sessa, are affectionate and multifaceted. Randolph’s portrayal of Mary is a standout, defying stereotypes and imbuing the character with warmth, abrasiveness, delicacy, and depth.
“The Holdovers” takes viewers on a picaresque journey, filled with moments of insight and humor. The film reveals the characters to each other and to the audience, with Payne’s skillful direction and the actors’ strong performances. Giamatti’s portrayal of a curmudgeonly teacher, Hunham, is both humorous and nuanced. His scenes with Randolph and Sessa are marked by affection and various forms of humor, making the characters come to life.
The film’s setting in the early 1970s and the use of 35-millimeter film create a nostalgic atmosphere, but it doesn’t feel trapped in the past. Payne invites the audience to step into the world of “The Holdovers” and experience a comedy that balances crassness and courtesy, humor and depth. As the film unfolds, it might remind you of classics like “Dead Poets Society” or “The Paper Chase,” yet it offers a fresh perspective, engaging characters, and a touch of emotional complexity.
In the hands of Alexander Payne, “The Holdovers” becomes a heartwarming and humorous exploration of a curmudgeonly teacher, his interactions with his students, and the unexpected bonds that form during the holiday season.
Our Reader’s Queries
Is The Holdovers streaming anywhere?
Stream The Holdovers exclusively on Peacock, distributed by Focus Features. You can also rent or buy it on Vudu and Apple TV+.
What is the plot of The Holdovers?
Barton Academy, a fictional school, was filmed at five different Massachusetts schools: Groton, Northfield Mount Hermon, Deerfield Academy, St. Mark’s School, and Fairhaven High School.
What school is The Holdovers based on?
THE HOLDOVERS stands as the ideal Christmas movie for those who don’t stick to traditional holiday celebrations. This film snagged two Golden Globe awards for its outstanding contribution to the 2023 film scene.