Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a pitch-perfect dramedy from a master of the form.
Alexander Payne’s new film, The Holdovers, is set in 1970, a time frame soaked into the aesthetic from the first minute—the grainy film stock, the strumming acoustic soundtrack, even the custom-made Focus Features logo with the blocky color forms of bygone studio branding. The director may be harkening back to the era because it was a time of great upheaval, both cinematic (with the dawn of New Hollywood) and social. But Barton Academy, the stodgy Massachusetts boarding school where The Holdovers is set, is a bulwark against all forms of change—and the film’s protagonist, the history professor Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), seems to have his feet firmly planted in the past.
To most of his students, Paul is a straightforward villain—a supreme curmudgeon with exacting academic standards who is, shall we say, not very skilled at finessing the social-emotional side of learning. Payne knows how to make a hero out of an intractable grouch: He already made another movie with Giamatti, the rollickingly ill-tempered Sideways, that got the audience rooting for a peevish, moody snob. Plenty of his other great films, such as About Schmidt and Nebraska, have wrung big laughs from the lives of similarly miserable middle-aged grumps. The Holdovers, then, is something of a welcome return to form, a pitch-perfect dramedy about how even creatures like Paul have the capacity for incremental change.
As The Holdovers opens, Paul, who’s resolutely uninterested in academic politics, dares to fail the son of one of the school’s boosters. As a sort of punishment, he’s given the assignment of chaperoning the motley collection of students who remain at school during Christmas vacation. His chief companions in the frozen New England dormitories are the student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who is being ignored by his recently remarried mother, and the school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is freshly mourning the loss of her son in Vietnam.
These three wounded spirits, all eager to retreat from reality for different reasons, are catnip to Payne and the screenwriter David Hemingson, who delight in nudging them together and seeing the ways they can irritate and eventually support one another. Each character starts the film locked in their own feelings: Paul resents his diminished stature at the school, Angus lashes out about his teenage abandonment, and Mary struggles to take any steps that might make it look like she’s moving past her loss. The snowy Massachusetts climes and drafty-looking dorms set the perfect mood for Payne’s particular brand of despondence—for the few hours the sun is up, the environment somehow feels chillier and more remote than ever.
The film’s 133-minute running time is roomy, given the lack of propulsive plot—moping around an empty boarding school is not exactly the stuff of epic drama. But Payne fills every narrative nook and cranny with careful detail, seeking to understand the academic journey that led Paul to his dusty corner of books, and the dark family factors motivating Angus’s rebellious loneliness. Giamatti can do this kind of role in his sleep, but this is one of his best, with a panoply of cantankerous mannerisms (he can’t stop calling students “philistines” and “Visigoths”) covering up a wounded sense of pride. Sessa, giving his first-ever screen performance, is all raw nerviness, but Randolph might be the film’s most triumphant performance—she lets Mary’s biting wit peek out at the perfect moments without sacrificing a well-earned sense of insurmountable sadness.
Each character’s sorrow does eventually begin to thaw, and surprising bonds start to form—this is a movie, after all, and viewers tend to demand some character development. Just as in Payne’s other best films, the big changes creep up beautifully. In Election, he depicted Matthew Broderick’s descent into jealous madness, and in Sideways, he showed Giamatti’s character emerge from a deep depressive funk—but in both films, the transformation felt gradual and well-earned. The Holdovers accomplishes something similar with deft and surprising grace, turning from a sad comedy about retrograde schooling into a heartwarming family tale. A few belly laughs abound, but it’s the deep care for its characters that makes The Holdovers really sing.