BFI LFF 2023: The Holdovers (2023)

December 1970, a grumpy teacher forced to stay on campus over the holidays gradually bonds with a volatile teenager in Alexander Payne’s latest comedy drama The Holdovers.

Thrown Together For The Holidays

by Chris Drew

The Holdovers

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Directing his eighth feature, and first period film, Oscar-winner Alexander Payne creates another of his funny and touching character pieces in The Holdovers, reuniting with star Paul Giamatti nearly 20 years after their memorable collaboration on Sideways.

In a wintry and snow-covered New England we are introduced to the teaching staff and students at Barton Academy as most of the school prepare to leave for the holidays.

Exceptions to this are five students including Angus (Dominic Sessa, screen debut), kitchen manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name), who is grieving the loss of her son, and above all history teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) unimpressed but accepting of his assignment to ‘holdover’ with the students.

A tube of haemorrhoid cream is seen before we even cast eyes on Paul. Referring to the students as degenerates at every opportunity and gleefully issuing low marks, while on his mission to “instil basic academic discipline”, Paul is a cranky figure largely displeased with most people’s company. An exception to this is a nice rapport with Mary and he defends her against an uncaring outburst from one of the students.

Angus, we discover, is brighter than most of the boys whilst being spiky and opinionated and has been thrown out of three schools. He is distraught to discover that his trip abroad with his mother and stepfather has been cancelled so has no choice but to grudgingly join the contingent holding over.

Things get worse for the teenager when the father of one of the boys arrives in a helicopter and whisks the other four away skiing. Angus’ mother cannot be reached so he is forced to stay at the school with Paul and Mary and they become the most unlikely trio.

Paul has surprising chemistry with cheerful teacher Miss Crane (Carrie Preston, The Good Wife) and the triad are invited to her Christmas party nearby. Angus gets the chance to flirt with Miss Crane’s niece while Mary puts herself in charge of the music before having an emotional breakdown in the kitchen.

Christmas Day sees Paul amusingly bestow repeated Christmas gifts, before Angus is moved by having Mary’s ‘home’ cooked Christmas lunch and then requests a field trip to Boston which Paul reluctantly agrees to. Mary gets the opportunity to stay with her pregnant sister while Angus eventually has a meaningful family moment with major repercussions.

Paul and Angus bond in Boston, learning they share some similarities, particularly during a trip to a museum where Paul’s historical insights are both meaningful and hilarious. Angus helps Paul with a spontaneous cover story to an old colleague of Paul’s, paving the way for Paul to make a significant sacrifice for Angus.

Three fantastic central performances are key to the film’s success.

In a role written with him in mind, Giamatti predictably shines in a performance full of his characteristic pathos. Paul has frequent moments of high comedy, doing some drunk stretching, chasing Angus around the school and then being absolutely aghast at Angus having an accident in the gym in a hilarious scene. His gradual thawing towards Angus is moving and he becomes quite the lovable grouch.

In his first film, newcomer Sessa is a revelation ensuring Angus is a fully realised character, occasionally vicious, frequently and, as we learn, understandably bitter but with a layer of heart and kindness that is effectively revealed as the story progresses.

With a performance that will almost certainly see her at the heart of the Oscar conversation, Randolph is wonderful as Mary. The depth of her sadness is always close to the surface but she also exudes warmth while bringing an entertaining deadpan humour in her wry observations.

From the retro-style opening credits through to the production design and costuming – with so much corduroy – the early ’70s is very successfully recreated, complete with endless indoor smoking.

In David Hemingson’s sparkling screenplay, the character development and progression of the relationships is satisfying throughout and a belly laugh or tug at the heartstrings is never far away.

The Holdovers sits comfortably alongside Payne’s best films.

The Holdovers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 11 and 12 October 2023 and is released on 19 January 2024 in the UK.

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