As someone born in the late eighties and raised as a pure product of the nineties, I didn’t expect a seventies throwback piece to hit me as hard as Alexander Payne’s latest. What’s interesting is, as a millennial and someone who relates more to the first two decades above and who hasn’t seen enough “New American Cinema” born of the seventies to really recognize the qualifiers, it’s hard to know whether or not The Holdovers is in fact a movie akin to those made in the seventies or if it is simply a homage to what we now think of when we say “a seventies movie”. Payne, who is now sixty-two, has made films in the vein of seventies movies before - movies that center on multi-faceted characters with relatively small and always personal problems - but he’s never seemingly made a movie so overtly mimicking so much of what he clearly draws inspiration from. 

I say all of this as something of a qualifier in and of itself for, while I understand The Holdovers might be more provoking of the look and feel than invoking of the actual spirit of seventies cinema, as someone of my age and viewing history it left me feeling as if it had done both. Furthermore, I understand why those who might have a deeper pool of knowledge and sense of connection to movies of the seventies and their unshaven realism might find The Holdovers more of a copy of what once was rather than the authentic journey I experienced while watching the film, but the fact of the matter is: I found this far more enjoyable than expected given my aforementioned disposition, but more than that - I found this deeply affecting and honest. While it might be aping certain seventies visual cues very intently, it also manages a perfect balance of melancholy and comedy that elicits heavy truths while equally highlighting the gleefully effervescent moments of life (and how they weave our days and time together).

To this extent, The Holdovers has a lot going on in it and just as much on its mind, but we never feel pushed to be persuaded by anything. Instead, while the film purports to be heavily focused on entitlement, honor, and the upholding of certain standards and traditions that make someone who they are and of a certain class, it is naturally, actually about Paul Giamatti's Paul Hunham coming to an epiphany after so many years of trying to hold himself to these standards and present such a specific version of himself that none of it is worth it if you're still making kids suffer for your own enjoyment. Hunham, a history teacher at an all-boys prep school, finds joy in the condescension and criticism he is able to dole out towards his students who he knows are inferior (at least intellectually) as well as with his co-workers who we can assume he also feels superior to if not also because of his IQ but because he has "foregone sensual pleasures for spiritual endeavors," meaning he is single and socially awkward and has fully dedicated himself to this institution for which he attended and now works. This mentality is also what gets Hunham holed up on campus over the holidays with Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a smart if not troubled student, who also has no place to go. 

Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao - © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The film plays the card of these two at first vehemently opposed people teaching each other a few things about life in the process of beginning to like one another, but while this is kind of the structure upon which it hangs its hat what is most interesting is how it compounds its many ideas via this method into a rather breezy execution. Hunham assumed Tully was another in a long line of the entitled pricks he's accustomed to teaching - and to a certain extent is - but it's clear Tully actually has an intelligence behind his quips and whining which is possibly why Hunham feels slightly threatened by him even if it's not enough for him to let it show. Both are a couple of neurotic messes, but the addition of Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Mary Lamb, a cook at the school who has also elected to stay on campus over the holidays, brings a levity to this group of people who were all left behind in one way or another. Though Hunham and Tully each have their histories that have led them to this point in life, Mary has the most apparent and valid reasons for behaving the way these men do (wounded) even if she doesn't, really. 

Randolph's Mary being a black woman in 1969/1970 is not lost on the audience either as she must harbor her pain and regret rather than air it out freely in order to feel some type of affirmation. The volumes this speaks does a fair amount of narrative work for Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson, but Randolph plays the part with such humanity and realism that her abbreviated appearance and transparency of her function disappear. Hunham is at least understanding and sympathetic to Mary's plight as well, befriending her, standing up for her, and never making her feel excluded, but were the starting gates of life aligned equally it is clear Mary would have never needed Hunham's sympathies. There is a small, rather short scene featuring Randolph though that absolutely broke me and was also the moment the movie transcended its invoking nature and became a genuinely provoking piece of storytelling. 

Photo by Seacia Pavao/Seacia Pavao - © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Much like its themes and ideas, there are multiple things at play in The Holdovers that make it endearing and indelible, whether it be Giamatti's run, Giamatti trying to throw a football, or Giamatti having to crawl through the passenger side of his car; each of which are (hilariously) entertaining. Joking aside, what stands to make this film actually lasting and unforgettable is how it captures the nature of this journey, this trip with these characters from one point in their lives to the next. Giamatti utilizes just enough of what he did with Payne previously in Sideways while deviating from the character just enough to make Hunham maybe not as unhinged, but more sorrowful (he also just looks like complete shit, which is appreciated as well) whereas Sessa (who I had not seen in anything previously) really does well to show Tully's anger over his vulnerabilities in an understandable rather than cloying fashion. I also just loved the set and production design throughout, how all the floors at the prep school would creak, how all the rooms were filled with smoke all the time, and such details as the cars and the interior of the Chateau in Boston gave no false notes. Also, some pitch-perfect casting in Tully's mom and stepdad. Really special stuff all-around. I mean, "penis cancer in human form," has to be one of the greatest insults ever put to film.

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