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The Holdovers movie review: A life-affirming character study

Updated on: 09 February,2024 05:34 PM IST  |  Los Angeles
Johnson Thomas |

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the Classics teacher who is tasked with staying on campus over the break, as chaperone to the few students who aren’t going home for Christmas

The Holdovers movie review: A life-affirming character study

The Holdovers movie review

Film: The Holdovers
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston.
Director: Alexander Payne
Rating: 4/5
Runtime: 133 min

The narrative opens in a New England boarding school over the Christmas break in 1970. An old-fashioned taskmaster, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the Classics teacher who is tasked with staying on campus over the break, as chaperone to the few students who aren’t going home for Christmas. He is most hated and trolled mercilessly by his students but the curmudgeon and man of principles that he is, he weathers those storms with his head held high. He is obviously happy to put these rich kids through the ringer before their admissions to Ivy League colleges.

Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) the only kid with a decent grade in Paul’s Classics course, is one of handful of  “holdovers” during Christmas break. Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the black head cook, who’s still grieving the loss of her son, a former student of the school who couldn’t afford college and so went to Vietnam, is yet another ‘Holdover.’ After a disastrously brief few days of controlling the unruly lot, Paul is left with only Angus in his care. The developing relationship between Paul and Angus is the heart of the film. As they challenge each other through the remaining days, the teacher and pupil learn a lot more about each other. Soon they come to realise that intrinsically, they are no different from each other.

The narrative may be dominated by Paul and Angus’ verbal histrionics but Mary’s presence is never forgotten.

Sessa and Paul are able to play off each other to great effect. Sessa is fact a promising young debutant actor who puts on a great show in scenes more experienced actors may muff. Despite his unruly antics as Angus, he manages to show off some surprising gentleness while handling a much younger ‘holdover’ who wet his bed.    after he wets the bed in the middle of the night. The character arcs are the most telling here. Angus’ anger and sadness collide with that of Paul when both experience similar shocking moments. Their ability to reflect and deflect each other’s emotions, is quite a remarkable feat in a story that brings on a catharsis and proves challenging for both.

Mary’s misfortune plays parallel to Paul and Angus’ face-offs. For her, the tragedy is that her son died in Vietnam fighting so that he could save up for higher studies, while those more privileged show little value for the education they get as part of their legacy. Mary is left working in the halls where her son once ate, and she doesn’t want to leave, concerned because she believes quitting would be abandoning his ghost. Randolph’s presence in the narrative is imposing even though she underplays Mary with a subtle nuanced approach. She may be little disgusted with the rich white boys but she understands and commiserates with their loneliness and desperate need for attention. Mary’s story puts forward a third point of view to ponder over. Despite being a supporting character in the film, her story operates as an eye-opener for the main characters.

Payne’s narrative is vibrantly visual and impactful in its capture of the emotional journey of the three main characters. The early 1970s setting is envisaged authentically and beautifully. The cozy snow-bound boarding school is impressively relatable, the teaching sessions in the school and the unruly shenanigans of the students play true and Cat Stevens's songs set the mood exquisitely for the cinematography that recreates moments in time that are hauntingly memorable. Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Randolph’s performances certainly deserve all the accolades they can get. The Holdovers has all the hallmarks of a great movie experience. It’s a must-watch!


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