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The Holdovers reunites Giamatti and Payne in a story of Christmas Past

Audrey Kupferberg, seated at a desk in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg

The Holdovers, written and directed by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, blends a cynical view of the Vietnam era world with a holiday spirit that rarely appears in films today, other than the sad-to-glad romances on the Hallmark Channel. This affecting dramedy is streaming and available on disc.

Since 1996, Payne has written and directed eight major feature films, including Sideways, Nebraska, About Schmidt, and Downsizing. As with Sideways, he has been fortunate to have Paul Giamatti as his lead. Casting the right actor is especially important for Payne because his characters make up the most significant part of his works. With Giamatti, he has one of the finest actors working today.

The Holdovers opens at the fictional Barton Academy, an all-male New England prep school, just before the start of two weeks Christmas vacation. It is December 1970. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a teacher of ancient history, a despicable little dictator. He is the teacher from hell, a hard taskmaster who presides over the classroom with venom in his heart. He assigns work for completion over the recess, and he treats each boy with contempt. He is a creepy little man whose only power comes from lording it over youngsters. What a creature! He even smells bad.

In turn, the boys—in particular, the teenagers, are a vile bunch. They carouse and treat each other with disdain. The only nice people are three kitchen and maintenance workers, and one of those is in a terrible state. Mary Lamb, the head cook, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, has just lost her beloved young son in Vietnam. Currently, Randolph, an accomplished stage and screen actor, can also be seen in Only Murders in the Building as the detective. She is outstanding in The Holdovers in a role that might have been played maudlin by a lesser talent.

Enter into this world of discomfort and woe, the main plotline. One teen, a sadsack named Angus Tully, is unable to leave the campus during the recess. His mother and stepfather have decided to take a romantic honeymoon, leaving him out in the literal cold. Angus cannot stay on campus on his own, so Paul Hunham must stay to mind him. Their adventure together forms the crux of the story.

Hunham is a louse, and friendless. As the film progresses, we learn facts of his past that have embittered him. If you think of The Holdovers as a Christmas movie, then Hunham is Scrooge. Angus is stiff, secretive, and mean-spirited, but he shows signs of humanity. For much of the film, we are in a world of characters who are unlikeable. It’s a situation similar to watching Succession. Unlike Succession, however, these characters change; there is character development and revelation.

Newcomer Dominic Sessa was a student at a New England boarding school when he was tapped for the role of Angus. Giamatti, graduated from the elite Choate Rosemary Hall prep school before earning a graduate degree from Yale. Both actors know the lifestyles of privileged sons.

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge becomes everything good and kind. He gives money to the poor. He gives a raise to Bob Cratchit. Tiny Tim cries out, “God bless us everyone”. Yeah, well that was 1843. Victorian life certainly was hard, but Dickens somehow got away with an entirely happy ending.

By 1970, the United States had been involved in the Vietnam war for almost a decade. Pop culture in The Holdovers is limited to small-screen viewings of The Newlywed Game. Cynicism abounds– not only in prep schools. In the final scenes of this film, no character god blesses anyone at all, but Payne gives us a most believable finale.

On a personal level, The Holdovers is one of my favorite films of 2023.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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