Film Review: The Holdovers is a lived-in comedy that crackles in its quieter moments of reflection

After the misstep that was 2017’s ambitious Downsizing, writer/director Alexander Payne returns to more familiar territory in The Holdovers.  Familiar in the sense that the high-school setting brings to mind his biting 1999 black comedy Election, his lead, Paul Giamatti, is a pitch-perfect educator, like his 2004 standout Sideways, and the dialogue peppered throughout is witty and nuanced and gives way to a more subtle emotional outlay than what the characters are actually feeling; though Payne, interestingly enough, can’t take credit for the script here, with screenwriting credit going to prominent TV writer David Hemingson (Just Shoot Me!, American Dad, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23).

There’s a modesty to The Holdovers that sits in place with the film’s understated mentality, where its dramatic and comedic sensibilities play off each other in a manner that reiterates Payne’s mastery in storytelling and how impeccably suited he is to the capabilities of Giamatti.  Set in 1970 – and the film truly looks the part of a period film – Giamatti steps effortlessly into the shoes of Paul Hunham, a notoriously peevish history teacher at a New England boarding school, Barton Academy, who has earned himself a reputation for his unrelenting, hardass-like way of teaching.  He’d be the first to tell you that his feelings aren’t remotely hurt by what the students think of him, but Hemingson’s script peels back Hunham’s curmudgeonly layers over the course of the film’s 133 minutes, a surprise turn-of-character brought predominantly on by student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, a true find in his debut role), whose mother cancels his semester holiday to Saint Kitts at the last minute, leaving him, and a select group of other unfortunate students, as holdovers for the Christmas break; Hunham, as a form of punishment from the headmaster (Andrew Garman) for failing his son in his class, is placed in charge of overseeing their placement at the school during said break.

What so easily could have been a situational comedy of errors between the put-upon Hunham and a group of angry, rebellious teenagers turns to something much deeper and intimate, when Angus is the sole student left behind when one of his classmates’ parents eventually caves in to demand and allows the remaining students to accompany their family ski trip; Angus only misses out on a technicality, with his mother unable to be reached to grant permission.  Angrier than when he was at least involved in a collective of left-behind teens, Angus makes it a mission of his to punish Hunham however he sees fit.  It’s not an unexpected plot device to have both student and teacher eventually bond over their eventual similarities, but summing up The Holdovers in such a manner sells the film short, with Hunham, Angus, and the school’s head cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, heartbreakingly sublime), revealing their true selves in a fashion that transcends the “simplicities” of the presumed narrative.

As a mother who has lost her son in the Vietnam War, Mary spends much of the movie as someone grieving for a loss she can’t comprehend, but, unfortunately, understands.  Her motherly instincts kick in exponentially around Angus, and though he initially treats Hunham with contempt, she helps them both redirect their anger.  Angus having been essentially abandoned by his mother allows Hunham to take an outside view to the teenager’s angst, whilst Angus realises that it’s more resentment at his privilege that Hunham harbours, rather than a necessary personal hate.  The three of them gloriously play off one another, and though Hemingson’s script is crackling when they’re involved, it’s the quieter moments between Hunham and Angus, specifically, that work in the writer’s favour the most.

With the film setting itself at Christmas time, in the 70s, no less, you’d understand if The Holdovers succumbed to seasonal sweetness and relied on the sense of nostalgia that its period could give way to.  Yes, The Holdovers does harbour a certain affability, but it’s never overtly sentimental to where these characters feel removed from their reality.  Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph create lived-in embodiments of these players, and as much pain as their individually holding, Payne affords them a generosity they all truly deserve.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Holdovers is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.