It’s the last day of school before winter break. Final exams are turned in and everybody is checked out, including the teachers. What better way to coast through the day than by putting on a movie, preferably The Holdovers? Ironically, the tightly wound teacher at the center of The Holdovers would never consider rounding out the semester with a laidback movie – even if DVDs existed in the 70s. He not only has the audacity to fail practically every student on the last day, but he’s already preparing them for the next semester. With the wrong actor in the role, we’d immediately despise this guy. Since he’s played by Paul Giamatti, though, we hate him in all the right ways and come to empathize with him in unexpected ones.
It’s been almost two decades since Giamatti gave his finest performance in Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Why these two haven’t collaborated more is a mystery. In any case, Giamatti is again at his best while Payne makes a huge comeback after Downsizing. They can’t take all of the credit, however. What started as a television pilot flourished into a witty and nuanced script from David Hemingson. Giamatti is joined by a small yet passionate supporting cast, complete with promising newcomers like Dominic Sessa and Oscar-caliber character actresses like Da’Vine Joy Randolph. These actors and Hemingson’s dialogue brilliantly convey an all-too-relatable emotion many of us experience around the holidays: isolation.
Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is a regular Grinch and Barton Academy is his Mount Crumpit. Hunham is more than content staying at the school over break, but he’s stuck with a few other Christmas orphans. Angus Tully (Sessa) is a privileged yet intelligent student whose mother wants to spend Christmas with her new husband. Hunham has more respect for Mary Lamb (Randolph), a school cook whose son died in Vietnam. There’s also a custodian (Naheem Garcia) that the film occasionally forgets about. The underrated Carrie Preston also could’ve used a couple of more scenes as a teacher that Hunham takes a liking to. The aforementioned trio is where The Holdovers shines, though. So, that’s where the focus should be.
Mary manages to maintain some peace between the student and teacher, although she’s barely keeping herself together as she grieves her son. As different as Hunham and Angus are, both find that they’re lost souls with the school providing a sanctuary. Hunham has spent most of his adult life at Barton. At one point, it was because he had nowhere else to go. Now, he may be too afraid to leave. Angus isn’t thrilled to be attending Barton, but it’s better than the military school that his parents threaten to send him to. You might see the rapport between Hunham and Angus coming, but the way this relationship unfolds is full of laughs, tears, and a few genuine surprises.
All the while, Giamatti avoids turning Hunham into a caricature, even with a lazy eye. Every character here feels real, making for one of the most honest and adult holiday movies in some time. Payne captures the bleak side of Christmas while still bringing a fair deal of warmth to the picture. He’s made a film so authentically 70s that you’d swear it was pulled from the time capsule, right down to studio logos. It may start on a pessimistic note, but by the end, The Holdovers will have you feeling oddly grateful, even for the acquaintances that you don’t particularly like. It’s not a bountiful feast, but the film is a humble Christmas meal. Strangely, the latter can be more satisfying and impactful, leaving behind a taste you won’t soon forget.