The Holdovers

The Holdovers, 2023, 4 stars

Teaching moments

Payne delivers heartwarming, hilarious holiday gift

Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti star in The Holdovers. (image copyright Miramax / Focus Features)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, November 28, 2023

Curmudgeonly Paul Hunham teaches history at a New England boarding school for boys. With his button-down shirt and button-down mind, his googly eye and googly soul, Paul persists, despite being disliked by both pupils and faculty.

It’s Christmastime 1970, and the Vietnam War is raging. But the only things raging on the snowy campus of Barton Academy are the hormones of the boys, who are chomping at the bit to get home for the holidays. But not all have places to go. Specifically, five students are “holdovers,” stuck at school with only Mr. Hunham and the head cook as chaperones.

This seemingly predictable, comedic scenario eventually turns more melancholy and ultimately meaningful in the hands of director Alexander Payne. Buoyed by a lovingly laid-back pace, gentle dissolve shots and meticulous attention to period architecture, dress, mood and music, The Holdovers feels like IT was held over – from 1970. With its earthy tones, old cars, fake flicker and classic production logos, the film screams time travel. All these wonderful choices allow you to sink into a movie that, without them, wouldn’t have been nearly as engrossing.

But the story speaks volumes sans style. Both a coming-of-age tale (for Angus, the student whose story is featured most prominently) and a moment of late-life crisis (for both Mr. Hunham and the cook, whose son was just killed in Vietnam), The Holdovers doesn’t break new ground on either topic. But it does retread that ground with a tenderness that will not soon be forgotten, thanks to a smart script by David Hemingson, good performances by Dominic Sessa as Angus and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the grieving mother, and a masterful turn by the great Paul Giamatti as Mr. Hunham. Some characters from the first act go underdeveloped and are, oddly, almost thrown away mid-movie, but the payoffs involving the principals mostly make up for that.

Part Dead Poets Society, part It’s a Wonderful Life and all Payne, The Holdovers should be included among the director’s best films, alongside About Schmidt, The Descendants and Citizen Ruth. And it’s nice to see him working again with Giamatti, almost 20 years after their first collaboration (Sideways). They’re both older and wiser than the last time they tangoed, and it shows in the film’s meandering gate, biting humor and can’t-miss message straight from that aforementioned Capra classic: Each man’s life touches so many other lives.

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For more information about this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia. It is currently screening in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.