Filmmaker Alexander Payne has a knack for taking slice-of-life stories, things many of us experience throughout our lives as everyday people, and digging into them with an emotional depth that few others do it. Whether it’s the loss of a partner, having to face the prospects of retirement and the rest of your life alone, unfaithful partners, aging parents, depression, or even a bratty high school student running for class president, there’s a method to his storytelling that allows us all to find a piece of ourselves somewhere in his films. Well…except for Downsizing, but I’m not going to rake him over the coals too much for that one. My point is that on our worst days, life can feel like an Alexander Payne film, but we find the sprinkles of hope and humor in the end. And, we move on.
Payne gets back to the hallmark of what makes his films feel so deeply personal and endearing in The Holdovers. At the center of this story are three characters: a grieving mother who just lost her son, an old curmudgeon of a teacher whose life hasn’t gone perhaps as he expected, and a rebellious young man who is dealing with some trauma of his own. Holding over during the holiday break at Barton Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) cooks, Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) maintains order, and Angus (Dominic Sessa) just tries to get by. Stuck with each other as the snow falls outside, we begin to unravel little nuggets about each character and what led them to this spot with nowhere else to go on Christmas. It’s in that unraveling that Payne really dives into the heart of the story.
The Holdovers is well-acted, with a fantastic performance from Giamatti, who always seems to know the exact moment to pull up on the disciplinarian bit and show a more understanding, compassionate side. Randolph plays Mary in a way that shows a deep pain is always haunting her beneath the surface, whether she’s laughing on the outside or not. And, Sessa captures the angst of being a teenager trying to cope with the absence of his father and a mother and stepfather who would rather keep him at Barton instead of spending Christmas with him. To borrow a festive comparison, it is Barton’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys. But, it’s that pain within each character that causes them to grow in the presence of one another. I feel as though Paul sees some of his self in Angus. Having messed up an opportunity of his own in his younger days, he sees the potential in the young man, and desires to see him fulfill it. The Holdovers presents a beautiful message, one that you’d undoubtedly expect if prompted with “what do you think an Alexander Payne Christmas movie would be like?“
Tender story aside, The Holdovers is a marvel from the technical and craftsmanship side of filmmaking. It’s a cozy film, chock full of snowy scenes, Christmas trees, and holiday vibes. I’m a sucker for stories like this in general, but dial it up to 11 at this time of year. This is one I believe I’ll be watching every Christmas from here on with a nice cocktail and a blanket, sitting by the fire. I love the way Payne uses music to set the tone in scenes as well – there’s an acoustic sort of soundtrack to The Holdovers that makes the tone of the movie even more thoughtful, relaxing, and heartwarming. The cinematography was on point, and we were fortunate enough to see this on 35MM film at The Belcourt Theatre here in Nashville, one of only five cinemas in the nation to show it in such fashion! That really highlighted the old time vibe of the story, and it allowed me to escape to 1970 as if I lived it myself. The Holdovers is a tender and dramatic story that serves as a warm cup of cheer this time of year. My star rating: 4.5/5.
For our resident film critic Brandon Vick’s thoughts on The Holdovers and Alexander Payne’s style and filmography, check out our most recent episode of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast.Listen to “Ep. 139: The Holdovers Review, Alexander Payne” on Spreaker.
Stoney Keeley is the Editor in Chief of The SoBros Network, and a Dogs Playing Poker on velvet connoisseur. He is a strong supporter of Team GSD, #BeBetter, and ‘Minds right, asses tight.’ “Big Natural” covers the Tennessee Titans, Nashville, Yankee Candle, and a whole wealth of nonsense. Follow on Twitter @StoneyKeeley.
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