(Written by Allison Brown)
Emerging as if it were a lost film recovered from a bygone time, The Holdovers finally makes its way to a New York festival. In the Q&A afterward, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) described his intention to “make a contemporary film for 1970,” rather just a period piece, and he truly commits to this endeavor. From as early on as the opening credits sequence, retro fonts, color grading, and flickering film dust and sound truly immerse the audience in the era. Impeccable casting results in vintage hairstyling feeling effortless, rather than relying on stuffy wigs or artifice.
While I wasn’t particularly a Paul Giamatti fan prior, I surely am now. Frankly, his character, Paul Hunham, is not easy to like: a bitter and condescending, cross-eyed alcoholic, who smells of fish and consistently spouts random useless factoids. Yet, Giamatti infuses humanity and nuance into a man that could be universally hated if anyone else were to play him. As the quirky and misunderstood Mr. Hunham unfurls each layer of the fractured past that shaped him, Giamatti gives one of the most dynamic performances of his career. Newcomer Dominic Sessa equally holds his weight, despite this being his very first role, as internally conflicted student Angus Tully. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is also wonderful as grieving mother Mary, aptly named for the Christmas season. Mary acts as a necessary foil to Hunham’s stern education-forward outlook. A classically uplifting narrative of a ragtag group of miserable misfits finding support in one another ties it all up with a neat little bow, leaving one empowered and tearful as the credits roll. Robust emotionality paired with great comedic bits that almost always land lead The Holdovers on the path to being a serious awards contender.
With my own fair share of familial drama, I found the Barton Academy students’ experience to be wholly relatable. In the past few years since the pandemic, I began to experience my very own “holdover” situation, as one of few locals left behind in a deserted city through December. New York City young adults begin a mass exodus from our concrete jungle the second vacation days hit. Just like Angus and his peers, I struggled to feel the holiday spirit, and constructed whatever found family I could garner from those who also were unable to travel to family. I am so grateful to finally be spending my time with family this year, but also fully aware not everyone is this lucky.
The Holdovers reminds us that people outwardly present based on a cumulation of past struggles and wins, and some poor behavior or actions are not fully intentional. We cannot tell what others are going through privately, so giving the benefit of the doubt is always the best option. Although I wish the story concluded in a more optimistic fashion, each character leaves with more purpose on how to move forward while navigating their own trauma. That alone makes it a success for all.
The Holdovers screened at the 2023 New Yorker Festival on Sunday, October 8th, and gives an early start to the holiday festivities when it opens in limited theatres on October 27th, and finally expands to wider audiences on November 10th.