Universal have lost their minds waiting until the middle of January to release THE HOLDOVERS in the UK. Those who have longed for a new Christmas classic to join the festive canon can be assured Alexander Payne’s 1970s-set comedy-drama is it, despite having had to wait until the start of the new year to see it.
The film’s title refers to those left at Barton Academy, a New England boarding school, during the holidays. Classics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is in charge of the few students still on campus, but before long, most are gone after being invited on a ski trip by one of their wealthy parents, leaving only Angus (Dominic Sessa) behind. Along with the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the three have the rooms and halls of Barton Academy to themselves for a couple of weeks.
A blanket of snow sits atop the movie, capturing a specific kind of nostalgic melancholy unique to Christmas. It is a time associated with certain expectations, especially to enjoy oneself and spend it with friends and family. Hunham, Angus and Mary are all missing people from their lives: Hunham has put academia above interpersonal relationships; Angus’s mum cancelled their plans to instead honeymoon with her new husband; Mary is grieving the loss of her son. Christmas is often portrayed as a time of celebration on screen, in music, and in literature, but it has a bittersweet flip side in reality. The film does away with the typical tinsel-covered sheen soundtracked by Mariah Carey and replaces it with a profound sadness made up of the people and the potential we have loved and lost. What makes THE HOLDOVERS such a comforting watch is how acknowledging this festive melancholia makes it less of a lonely experience.
“The film does away with the typical tinsel-covered sheen soundtracked by Mariah Carey and replaces it with a profound sadness made up of the people and the potential we have loved and lost. What makes THE HOLDOVERS such a comforting watch is how acknowledging this festive melancholia makes it less of a lonely experience.”
As New Year creeps up, Hunham and Angus reflect on the expectations they had – and continue to have – for themselves. Hunham is quickly shown to be booksmart and dedicated to his craft, and his strictness implies a life rich with discipline. He seems custom-built to brush up against Angus, who is constantly trying to escape the school, rarely sitting still before doing himself an injury which lands him in hospital. They try to co-exist like this, at first, before the prolonged time forced together weakens their defences and gives them space to share their anxieties. As December fades and January appears on the horizon, tradition invites resolutions for the year ahead, which – by their very nature – say something about our lives until that point. Hunham’s consistency as a teacher is tinged with disappointment over what could have been, while Angus, abandoned by his mum, worries about who he will grow to be and whether he has any say in the matter.
Giamatti is racking up plaudits by the second for his portrayal of Hunham, who brings to mind every by-the-book teacher from adolescence. His authority as the leader of the holdovers is charming and funny, and despite how frustrating he would be to anyone other than a straight-A student, his good nature is a real source of warmth. Arriving on screen as a fully-formed leading man, newcomer Sessa has an angsty attitude but a poetic look, a perfect fan-cast for a film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which, with its academic focus, shares some of its aesthetic with THE HOLDOVERS). Randolph is also an Oscar front-runner for portraying Mary, whose maturity outstrips both boys. Though equipped with less screen time, she cuts through to the heart of every scene by saying what needs to be said with a pointed look or allowing grief to show honestly on her face.
THE HOLDOVERS is cosy because it is bittersweet, and in the same way, it is a comedy because it is sad. David Hemingson’s script, which draws from his own life, understands the close proximity of these seemingly conflicting emotions. With that understanding, he has created a modern Christmas classic that deserves to be shown in cinemas every December hereafter.