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Review: ‘The Holdovers’ doesn’t shy away from life’s complexities

‘The Holdovers’ follows an unlikely group forced to spend the holidays together

A scene from 'The Holdovers'
A scene from 'The Holdovers' courtesy of Focus Features
A scene from 'The Holdovers' courtesy of Focus Features

‘The Holdovers’ follows an unlikely group forced to spend the holidays together as they gain insights into each of their difficult circumstances.

The tension between young people and adults is often caused by a lack of understanding. In spite of once being an adolescent, when people become older they forget what it was like for everything, good or bad, to feel amplified beyond its actual significance. Or to want more control over one’s life, even if they lack the maturity to take on the extra responsibility. Conversely, teens resent the rules set by adults to keep them safe, instead believing they’re there to complicate their lives and minimize their fun. In The Holdovers, a curmudgeonly teacher and disruptive student must find common ground when they’re stuck with each other over Christmas break.

Ancient civilizations teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the most hated educator at Barton Academy, a prestigious boarding school for boys. Thus, it’s to everyone’s dismay when he draws the short straw and is assigned to supervise the students unable to go home for the holidays. Amongst the holdovers are a couple of younger students, a football star, an obnoxious snob named Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who also has a disagreeable reputation among his peers. The only other people left at the school are Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cafeteria manager and grieving mother, and Danny (Naheem Garcia), the lovesick custodian. Over the course of two weeks, many truths are revealed and friendships formed as those left behind discover they have more in common than not.

The opening credits setup the throwback narrative with its vintage style, which is accompanied by a picture quality that’s less polished than most contemporary films. Thus, it feels like one is looking at old photographs, capturing an aesthetic reminiscent of Flirting or Dead Poets Society. Giamatti, of course, can be dropped into any period picture and he fits like a glove. Moreover, playing cantankerous men with steadfast opinions and a cynical view of life seems to come naturally to him. However, he really shines when he’s connecting with the other characters, whether it’s empathizing with a woman who’s lost her son or commiserating with a young man who doesn’t have it as easy as his teacher would like to believe. In this sense, Sessa truly stands out as a bright teenager secretly dealing with a lot of issues and being an amazing screen partner to the more seasoned Giamatti.

While it would be simple to follow a formula about a teacher and student who become friends over the course of winter break, this movie digs deeper into each of their lives. Alcoholism, abandonment, rejection, depression and other mental health issues affect the characters differently and while some are able to work through certain issues during the film, there’s no easy solution to their problems. They are complex personalities and there’s no attempt to oversimplify their feelings or stories. Director Alexander Payne is clearly skilled in bringing character-driven narratives to the screen, having last worked with Giamatti in Sideways. All of the actors convincingly embody their roles and are allowed the space to explore their unique personalities. Consequently, audiences will value the time they’re allotted to spend with these characters as they confront some of the most difficult moments of their lives.

In the end, it’s a moving picture that may have played even better if it had opened in December with its many references to snow and the holidays — but early November is close enough I suppose.

Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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