Today: May 21, 2024

The Holdovers

The Holdovers was something of a dark horse at the 2024 Academy Awards, while the likes of Oppenheimer, Poor Things and Killers of the Flower Moon were vying for top honours The Holdovers was always flying just beneath the radar. Because The Holdovers is one of this year’s, or any recent year’s for that matter, most entertaining, funny and heartfelt films.

At Barton boarding school, grumpy teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti) discovers at the last minute he has to stay behind over the Christmas holiday to look after a group of boys whose parents cannot take them for the festive period. With his only ally being grieving school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Paul finds himself at loggerheads with troubled student Angus (Dominic Sessa). As the teacher and student become increasingly frustrated with each other they will discover they have more in common than they first thought.

From the opening credits The Holdovers aims to throw you back in time in the most comforting, nostalgic way possible. While the film was shot entirely on digital, director Alexander Payne has painstakingly added details to imply it was shot on grainy, pin-prick celluloid. As such this isn’t just a period film, it feels like a film that was shot in the period it was set. It’s the kind of film you could effortlessly programme alongside the ‘70s classics like The Graduate or Harold & Maude. Both of those films feeling relevant given the idea of an older figure learning as much from their young ward as the reverse is also happening. It has that Hal Ashby ability to be funny, quirky but always achingly poignant.

Oscar nominated for its best original screenplay, David Hemingson’s script is littered with endlessly quotable dialogue, the kind you’ll want to log in your brain to deploy at those annoying moments in life to impart cynical wisdom. Paul quoting that “life is like a chicken ladder, short and covered in sh*t” perfectly sums up the tone of the film, it’s laugh-out-loud funny while being all too accurate in its outlooks. 

But while the comedy keeps you interested it’s the characters that keep you invested. Sessa is a wonderful find and brings that teenage point of view of thinking you know a lot but also never quite knowing your place in the world to life. Joy Randolph is the thumping heart of the film, her grieving Mary is deeply sad but also the voice of reason while all those around her are seemingly losing their heads. It’s all the more satisfying that she would go on to win the film’s only Oscar for her supporting role. Meanwhile Giamatti, reteaming with Payne after 20 years since they did similar sterling work on Sideways, is glorious. His stuck in his ways, padded elbows teacher so familiar you’ll wonder if you’re back in school yourself. But his cynical personality mixed with his dry humour is endlessly warming. It is he that goes on the biggest character arc and in Giamatti’s hands it is curmudgeonly funny and often tragic without ever asking you to feel sorry for him but rather realise there is more to Paul than meets the eye. 

As the pick and mix collection of characters form a dysfunctional family, so the film increasingly finds the confidence to explore and touch on powerful themes of class, grief and trauma. But more than anything it’s the idea of breaking free from where you think you’re heading, refusing to let your history define your present and future. It’s in these delicate, never over-egged moments where the wry smile the film paints on your face turns to something satisfying and rewarding. It’s in these moments where you’re grateful for Payne’s ability to juggle tone and theme with effortless style. 

A wonderfully warming, funny and deeply-layered film, The Holdovers is an exquisite throwback picture that will transport you in ways you don’t expect. 

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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