The Plot: Christmas, 1970. The semester is wrapping up at Barton College, where crusty professor Paul (Paul Giamatti) teaches ancient history to his otherwise disinterested class. Paul has something of a reputation, being disliked by just about everyone for his fussiness and frank approach to telling students off. For better or worse, he’s been landed with the job of looking after ‘the holdovers’ – the students with nowhere to go for the holiday season. Chief among them is Angus (Dominic Sessa), a troubled but talented young man who has much anger within him. Also tagging along is no-nonsense cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who has her own cross to bear. Somewhere, somehow, there is common ground for them all to find in each other…
The Verdict: Alexander Payne has been around long enough for him to often be taken for granted. Right out of the gate with the little-seen Citizen Ruth and then on to films like Election, Sideways and Nebraska, he’s been a keen observer of the human condition as viewed through the laid-back lens of a true-blue American director who knows what makes characters tick. Maybe he’s a little too low-key for his own good, but his name should be shouted from the rooftops in the same way as Wes Anderson. Unlike Anderson though, he hasn’t started to become a parody of himself. After the rare misfire that was a Hollywood special effects farce in Downsizing, he’s back on more solid footing and familiar soil with The Holdovers. It doesn’t take long for it to emerge as his finest film to date – and very possibly the film of the year already.
Payne hasn’t hidden the fact that The Holdovers is a tribute to the spirit and individualism of 1970s American cinema. He described it as being like a found film from that era, which is evident in the crackly opening credits and even the 1970s-style trailer. It’s the kind of pure, character-driven dramedy that might have been made by Hal Ashby or Michael Ritchie back in the day – the kind of film that they really don’t make anymore (sadly). That’s not to say that it’s Payne being overly nostalgic about the modern golden age of American cinema. It’s very much his own film, shot through with his wry sense of humour and a beautiful observation of three despairing lost souls who bond over the most wonderful time of the year. And before you can say Merry Christmas, it’s refreshingly free of the sticky, cloying sentimentality that plagues many a festive film. This is an altogether more refined affair.
David Hemingson’s script is a thing of beauty from start to finish. Having worked in television for several decades, this is surprisingly his first move into writing for film. If there was any sense of hesitation about how the script might pan out onscreen, it’s not evident here in his observational writing or Payne’s sterling direction of it. The unlikely trio of Paul, Angus and Mary become the strongly-beating heart of the film as they argue, fall-out, laugh, cry and celebrate being a person with nowhere obvious to go at a time while others are gathering together. There’s a lot of comedic potential in the story which Payne certainly mines: the foibles of Paul, who knows more about ancient history than about living in the present; the contrast of Angus being both a troublemaker and the best student in the class; and Mary, who cuts through it all with a carving knife to say what really needs to be said. That alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain a film for Payne though. He layers it with sharp pathos, spot-on observations about the damage that selfish parents do to their children and the simple pleasures of learning about the present through the past.
In a role that Payne intended for him, there’s a never-better Giamatti who nails every quirk and aspect of his character with the kind of actorly precision that should win every acting award going. There’s an exasperation to his character, but also a gradually-revealed acceptance of a man who never quite achieved what he wanted. He sees potential in Angus though, warts and all. Dominic Sessa more than holds his own, his bottled rage hinting at Angus’ real talent that just needs to be guided in the right direction. The devine Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the ideal counterbalance between them then, a grieving mother who acts as the hands guiding the mind and the heart in this trio. There’s a wonderfully subtle line of direction from Payne which suggests that each character influences and changes the others in their own unique way. The Holdovers is top of the class throughout. It unassumingly creeps up on you without much expectation and then gradually wins you over by tickling your funny bone, warming your heart and also being quietly devastating on a narrative and emotional level. Unmissable.
Rating: 5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Top of the class
The Holdovers (USA / 15A / 133 mins)
In short: Top of the class
Directed by Alexander Payne.
Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Tate Donovan.