Friday, December 29, 2023

The Holdovers

From director Alexander Payne comes this tale of an unlikely group of miserable people spending the holiday break together. In a Summer School-esque setup, we get Paul Giamatti as a frumpy history teacher at a prestigious New England boarding school dragged into filling in as the faculty member necessary to stay around while the rest of faculty and students return home for the winter holiday. Everyone's least favorite teacher, Mr. Hunham (Giamatti) is paired with one of the school's most unruly students (Dominic Sessa), abandoned by his family at the last-minute, and the school's head cook (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) still grieving the loss of her son.

While we get a handful of other students sticking around for the first 40-minutes or so, and a janitor who comes and goes, circumstances leave these three as the main focus of the film, each with reason to be resentful at the world and each other for their present circumstances and each learning a bit about each other over the two weeks.

The opening act is the weakest part of the film which does build from there. Although there is groundwork laid, the real story doesn't get going until these three, primarily our teacher and student, are left alone and forced to focus on and interact with each other. From that point on, things get interesting as characters sit still long enough to observe things they've missed and dismiss their preconceptions, even if it gets into overly schmaltzy territory by the time we arrive at the feel-good ending.

Even if the rest of the students aren't given nearly enough time to flesh out their characters, the film's strength is its performances. All three main characters get to flex their muscles a bit here and there are plenty of interesting smaller roles including Andrew Garman as the school's headmaster (and one of Hunham's former students), Carrie Preston as the only member of the faculty, staff, or student body, other than Mary (Randolph), who seems to like our grumpy hermit of a teacher, and Darby Lee-Stack as the embodiment of every teenage boy's fantasy of the girl to give you your first kiss.

Written by David Hemingson (Whiskey Cavalier), The Holdovers may not be Payne's best work but it has a warmth and likability even when the characters are being dickish towards each other, while exploring both drama and humor found in the struggle of everyday life. Its setting and uplifting final act also might just make it a holiday staple for the right audience. 

Watch the trailer
  • Title: The Holdovers
  • IMDb: link

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