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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Holdovers’ is an instant classic and a surprising tearjerker of a film

What makes ‘The Holdovers’ so enjoyable is that it’s intelligent and well-crafted. It’s no wonder that Paul Giamatti and Da’vine Joy Randolph are gearing up to the winners of the Oscars in their category.

There are a host of films about the relationships between students and their teachers. Films that are of a mold about the true nature of education, which goes beyond what is taught in books. There were a lot of them in the 90s, like ‘Dead Poets Society,’ ‘Dangerous Minds,’ and ‘With Honors’ (though the teacher there is a homeless man played by Joe Pesci). In the mid-2000s, we had films like ‘The History Boys.’ They are coming of age stories set in school, that says a lot about the importance of a good teacher in the molding of young minds.

Writer and director Alexander Payne, who has struck gold with movies like ‘Sideways’ and ‘The Descendants’ has a gift for building stories of seemingly ordinary occurrences or relationships and turning them into these profound human moments of beauty and grace. He has a knack for finding the extraordinary in the most mundane of things and people.

He does it again with ‘The Holdovers,’ a movie set in the 1970s, at the tail-end of the Vietnam war about a schoolteacher in an all-male boarding school who has to watch over the students who have nowhere to go during the holidays. This teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), is a teacher of the classics and is hated by everyone, not just the students, but by some co-faculty too. He’s a cranky, old man with a strict sense of decorum and manners. It’s the perfect antithesis for any young male high schooler with the urge to rebel against authority.

Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham and Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

In this case, the teen in question is Angus Tully (a breakthrough debut performance by newcomer Dominic Sessa), an intelligent but troubled kid, whose issues with his parents have caused him to move from school to school. He is enrolled in Paul Hunham’s classics class and is the only one amongst his classmates who gets a decent enough grade but, like his classmates, he cannot stand the unflinching Hunham.

© 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Rounding up the cast is Da’vine Joy Randolph, who plays Mary Lamb. She’s the school’s cafeteria manager, and whose son was an alumnus of the school. Unfortunately, at the start of the film, she’s grieving the loss of her son who was part of the Vietnam war. As the only service staff left, she is allowed to grieve in peace, and she becomes a grounding force between the bickering of the two men left behind.

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Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

What makes ‘The Holdovers’ so enjoyable is that it’s intelligent and well-crafted. Paul and Angus are both articulate and witty. Their back and forth are clever but are also loaded with the stuff that these two characters need. Paul needs to practice his empathy, needs to be reminded he is part of a larger world, of society whereas Angus needs a guiding hand, an authoritative figure who actually cares about him. These two characters are exactly what each other need but can they break through their own first impressions of each other to get what they need?

The story is so simple. Being away from family (or disconnected from them like Mary is) during the holidays has put an emotional pressure on these three characters and they find themselves hanging on to each other, albeit unwillingly for some, to feel a little more human, to feel a little less alone.

© 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

And in the process of all of this, the three find themselves going out of their shells, breaking free from the expectations of others and the expectations they have put upon themselves and find themselves on a road to healing.

Payne manages to present such simple ideas in a simple story but has the artistry to amplify the human elements of this story to create a profound sense of goodness that just springs forth from the tension between these characters. I was laughing all the way through the two-hour movie, laughing at all the verbal witticisms and the displays of humanity, both the strengths and weaknesses, that it made me feel good about myself. And, in a surprising twist, found myself sobbing at the end with the way the film finds a heartwarming resolution.

It’s not a flashy film, even the cinematography tries to capture the grainy quality of classic movies of the time period. But it’s so full of heart and so funny and so real in its presentation of emotions that it feels like a film I’ll be coming back to again and again and more so on Christmas. It’s no wonder that Paul Giamatti and Da’vine Joy Randolph are gearing up to the winners of the Oscars in their category. Giamatti is in his wheelhouse and may be the strongest contender to take the award out of Cillian Murphy’s hands. It would be deserving with this role in this movie.

My Rating:


The Holdovers is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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The Holdovers
Comedy, Drama
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