Film review: ‘THE HOLDOVERS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

With his perceptive and articulate dramas like Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, director Alexander Payne was establishing himself as one of the major film auteurs of the new millennium. His stellar reputation as a filmmaker was tarnished somewhat, though, with the 2017 sci fi themed social satire Downsizing which featured on some critics’ turkey lists.  Now, he makes a welcome return to form with a film that reaches into the past thematically and stylistically, the smart, funny and touching 1970s era drama The Holdovers.

Payne has wisely gone back to Sideways star Paul Giamatti who embodies this film’s bittersweet tone as finicky, depressive private boys school teacher, Paul Hunham. After decades of teaching ancient history and trying to impress upon the minds of ‘young troglodytes’ the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and Cicero, Hunham has become a cynical grump.  After refusing to pander the school’s headmaster and pass a Senator’s lunk-headed son, Hunham is punished by having to supervise the holdovers, the students who have to stay on campus over the Christmas/New year’s break. His plans of making them spend their holiday time quietly studying while he sneaks a few swigs of Jim Beam are thwarted when most of them unexpectedly depart, leaving him with smartass troublemaker Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Together with the school’s Head Cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who has tragically just lost her son in the Vietnam War, they try to endure their unofficial imprisonment.

With its muted palette, restrained directorial style and even its opening studio titles, this film strongly evokes the American cinema of the 70’s, particularly the works of directors like Hal Ashby and Robert Altman.

Full of exchanges that shift back and forth from fractious to funny to emotionally revealing, this insightful film reminds us that Hollywood movies can be built around fine writing and dialogue. Unlike so many Hollywood films of recent years, we’re given the chance to really become acquainted with the characters.

The film is built around the three leads and each does a wonderful job of bringing their character to life. No one does beaten down cynicism as well as Paul Giamatti.  His stream of bitter observations about his life feel like the genuine outpourings of someone whose ambitions have long since been squashed by the system.  Through Giamatti’s slyly funny performance as well as David Hemingson’s script, however, Hunham never becomes whiny or tiresome.   Newcomer Dominic Sessa is equally impressive, shifting our perceptions of Angus from a snarky privileged brat to more seriously troubled human being.  Sessa apparently won the part when students from Deerfield Academy – where this movie was filmed – were allowed to audition for roles.   As the widowed and now childless Mary, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (who thoroughly deserved her Golden Globe win for the role) has some heartbreaking scenes but there’s also a wonderful toughness to her character and the way she verbally skewers some of the pompous white bread school staff is alot of fun to watch.

This film benefits from the fact that Hollywood has in recent years been so overwhelmed by spectacle cinema and as a result The Holdovers feels completely different to most films of the last decade.  For older viewers, though, parts of this film will feel quite familiar; as well as 70’s films there are echoes of The Breakfast Club and Wonder Boys and had it come out 30 years ago it probably wouldn’t have seemed so refreshingly different.

A few odd tonal shifts and quirky moments jar a little but for most of its running time The Holdovers is a witty, at times sobering but mostly charming piece of cinema.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Alexander Payne.

Release date: 11th Jan 2023.

Running time: 133 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm on 88.3 Southern FM.


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