top of page

'The Holdovers' Review: A Melancholic Comedy With Acting Excellence And Nostalgic Charm

The Holdovers
Image courtesy of Jericho Cervantes (via Unsplash)

Alexander Payne’s melancholy comedy The Holdovers draws us into the world of three misfits, a cynical teacher (Paul Giamatti), an unruly student (Dominic Sessa), and a grieving cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), with a witty script which pushes the talented ensemble cast to deliver outstanding and memorable performances.

Institutional figure Paul Hunham (Giamatti) rules the Classics students at Barton Academy with an iron fist. Established as a stickler, disliked by students and staff alike, the viewer can only sympathise with the students left in his care over Christmas. He presents a schoolwork regime for them to stick to even over the supposed ‘break’, and Angus Tully (Sessa), spoilt as he may seem, clashes with Paul with colourful intelligent retorts. Mary (Randolph) is often a nonplussed onlooker to their antics, an antidote to their dual chaos. These dynamics radically shift, however, as the story reveals their private lives and the difficulties they face. 

The film doesn’t shy away from scenes of slapstick comedy, whilst at the same time delivering measured, poignant moments which delve into heavy topics such as isolation, depression, and the loss of a child. Appearing as if shot on film, the vintage title sequence warms the audience up for some pitch-perfect worldbuilding, which the film undoubtedly achieves. The multifaceted depth of the narrative revitalises the classic found-family trope, all whilst evoking a rich and authentic atmosphere of a stifling yet beautiful 1970s New England college. 

The ‘holdover’ period, across the Christmas holidays and through to the new year, is the timespan of this narrative, allowing insight into brief yet monumental connections. The audience witnesses a poignant character study of the trio slowly unravelling their initially clashing personalities. Shared experience leads to unlikely solidarity as they warm to each other and work to heal through the harsh memories they are forced to confront this holiday season. 

The ensemble cast shines and bounces off each other in a masterclass of acting, providing brilliant range and depth to both the comedy and the drama of the film. One such moment fusing comedy and drama takes place within a diner, in which Angus is pestering Hunham for a beer with ardent use of the adage that he keeps repeating: “It’s the champagne of beers!” Whilst winding him up, Angus notices that Hunham seems to have feelings for the waitress, and drops the joke to offer genuine emotional support to his teacher, even enthusiastic encouragement. 

These moments reveal a deep attachment and affection between two characters who at a surface level profess to want nothing to do with each other and depict a realistic, nuanced relationship that the audience can’t help but love. Giamatti and Randolph are known acting titans, but Sessa, who plays teen Angus Tully, was discovered after open casting calls on his campus (the location of the film shoot), which only makes his outstanding performance all the more impressive. These iconic performances are enough reason alone to go see the film, satisfying the inevitable intrigue generated by the film’s awards-season success.

The film’s gorgeous ‘70s aesthetic and university setting call back to nostalgic classics like Dead Poets Society (1989), but a little more straightforward and less darkly complex, captivatingly colour-graded to accentuate the looming dark oak of the institution and thick white snowfall outside. Payne paid attention to period-accurate production techniques to create a convincing, genuine film that respects these 70s film traditions- scratching and adding grain to a digitally shot film to approximate the film feel as closely as possible. 

The cinematography highlights the vastness of the empty halls with effervescent charm, often static shots allow the drama to play out in full force. There is also a focus on portraiture, as this is so character-driven, and the cinematography forces characters into frame with one another, at points uncomfortably (but entertainingly) so.

 It’s a cosy film, with Scrooge-esque moral messages about warming your cynical hearts this Christmas—watching it in January induces a sort of festive confusion, but that’s no reason to be put off as the festivity is primarily a backdrop. In addition, there’s a strong ‘70s, North American folk influence on the soundtrack which cements the film’s aesthetic. Composer Mark Orton has worked with Payne on prior films (such as Nebraska, 2013) and took the lead on scoring, bringing a jazzy, uplifting, guitar-driven accompaniment to the film which perfectly evokes the era, fused with popular folk-rock tracks of the time. 

Some overly sentimental moments lack subtlety, particularly towards the resolution of the film; there are some quite predictable evolutions of character and borderline cheesy dialogue about what we’ve learnt along the way. Yet all in all, Alexander Payne delivers a cosy, heartwarming holiday film brimming with emotional range. The film has a comforting quality that invites repeat viewing, which will allow it to take a firm place in the Christmas canon, whilst remaining versatile enough to watch year-round. 

I highly recommend The Holdovers for fans of the ‘70s or the New England college aesthetic, as watching The Holdovers truly feels like a warm cup of tea on a cold winter night. Whilst it may not push boundaries, or foretell a future for cinema, it is an easy-to-love slice of the past.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor