The Holdovers: A Poignant Picture Of Personal Growth

This year has been interesting for films in the sense that it has been “the year of the epic” – without exception, the most critically and commercially successful films in 2023 have been grand in every sense of the word. The Holdovers is different. By contrast, it’s a tightly focused and tightly cast film that’s driven by the characters and the exploration of their emotional depths.

Directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers takes place over the Christmas break of 1970 at Barton Academy, a New England prep school. While his peers are out for the holidays, Angus Tully (Sessa) is stuck at the school with his bête noire, classics professor Paul Hunham (Giamatti), after an act of parental abandonment. Hunham doesn’t want the responsibility but is stuck with it due to a nasty twist of fate. Also present at Barton for the holiday season is Mary Lamb (Randolph), the cafeteria manager of the school who is grieving the tragic loss of her son in Vietnam. These three incredibly different people wind up being alone together during what sometimes can be the loneliest time of the year, especially when you don’t have anyone to be with. 

Throughout the holiday break, we watch them transform as their emotional guards come down and they allow the others to see their own pain that they keep hidden, which manifests in other self-sabotaging ways. As they allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other, Professor Hunham, Angus, and Mary not only learn profound lessons about themselves but also step up and help each other as they process their own emotions and experience their own breakthroughs. It occurs as they interact together in ways ranging from watching TV, attending a holiday party, or taking the trip to Boston which sets up the climax of the film. By the time you reach the film’s bittersweet conclusion, you can see that all three of our protagonists have grown immensely from their experiences with each other over those two weeks and become better versions of themselves in the process.

This movie absolutely belongs to the three main actors. Through their performances, each of them introduces to the audience the qualities that make their characters flawed but also infuse them with enough likeability to make the audience root for them: Giamatti’s stuffy and crotchety but honourable professor; Sessa as the rebellious and surly, yet ultimately kindhearted student; and a scene-stealing performance by Randolph as the earthy, raw and touchingly sympathetic staff member. As each character’s narrative arc intersects with each other like a tapestry, the actors manage to play off each other incredibly well to portray how and why these multidimensional people held onto their pain and what happened to give them the space to overcome that pain. Bravo to them.

I also applaud Payne’s directorial choices, as those choices not only show that the movie is set in the early 70s but practically take us there. Everything is done deliberately and with care, from the credits being done in a 70s style and the type of camera work done to the authenticity of the setting and the film’s naturalistic depiction of life at a prep school; it recalls the New Hollywood era of filmmaking. Even the decisions made on the more substantive choices of the film like the casting and the way the narrative plays out is a callback to New Hollywood filmmaking. The only thing that I had an issue with was that there were points in the film that arguably dragged on for longer than necessary, particularly in the beginning where the stage is set. Despite that, it is a consistently solid film - well-written, well-directed, and especially well-acted. 

The Holdovers might not be the most accessible of films but if you allow yourself to open up and truly appreciate the emotional ride Professor Hunham, Angus, and Mary take you on, you’ll be richer for having watched it. As far as I’m concerned, if Oppenheimer was the summer's undisputed Oscar contender, then autumn belongs to The Holdovers. Judging from the quality of both films, there will definitely be stiff competition in the 2024 award season.