Skip to content

THE HOLDOVERS (2023) review

November 19, 2023


written by: David Hemingson
produced by: Mark Johnson, Bill Block and David Hemingson
directed by: Alexander Payne
rating: R (for language, some drug use and brief sexual material)
runtime: 133 min.
U.S. release date: October 27, 2023


Director Alexander Payne is at his best when presenting audiences with films that accentuate the complexities of the human connection, such as 2004’s “Sideways” and 2011’s “The Descendants”. “The Holdovers” is an excellent return to form for director Alexander Payne after his last feature, “Downsizing”, an uneven comedy from 2017. Working from a script by David Hemingson, Payne reunites with Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) for another examination of an arrogant man who is confronted with his own cold personality. “The Holdovers” is a fantastic character study of three nuanced characters who are unexpectedly brought together to experience a variety of mundane situations and unplanned misadventures. Filled with characters that feel genuinely real who perfectly portrayed and captured beautifully by cinematographer Eigil Bryld, “The Holdovers” is one of the best films of the year.

During the wintry holiday season of fictional Barton Academy circa 1970, just about every student who lives at the New England boarding school for boys is going home for break. However, there are always those who have nowhere to go and wind up staying on campus. They are called The Holdovers.



Someone on staff must watch them and there has to be someone maintaining the cafeteria to ensure these students get fed. Ancient Civilization professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) draws the short straw and is the assigned guardian during the holiday break. The group of five holdover boys is whittled down to one, Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), after a parent of one of the wealthy students whisks four of them off via helicopter to a ski excursion, five days into the break. This leaves Angus with Paul, a teacher who is disliked by students and disregarded by staff, and the two of them with Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who will handle food duties for them.

This isn’t the way Angus had planned on spending his two weeks off school. Originally, he was all packed and ready to travel to St. Kitts. But, he receives a call at the last minute and learns that his mother, Judy Clotfelter (Gillian Vigman), and new stepfather, Stanley Clotfelter (Tate Donavan), have decided to take a much-delayed honeymoon during his break and is told that he’ll just have to stay at school. The gangly junior is understandably forlorn and winds up showing it by being surly and rebellious with Mr. Hunham. He already hates it at Barton, but his stepfather’s threat of military school, if Angus gets himself expelled from yet another school, weighs heavily on him.

Staying at Barton during break feels like a punishment for Paul as well, but his job is his life and he doesn’t have any connections with anyone else. The boys make fun of him for many reasons, one of which is his lazy eye (Amblyopia) and another is the nasty fish odor his sweat emits (an actual rare medical condition known as trimethylaminuria, also called Fish Odor Syndrome) by the end of the day. His insecurities and frustrations are masked by his serious gruffness and by-the-book demeanor, which makes him unapproachable. That’s fine with him though. He’s seemingly content sucking his pipe and day-drinking Jim Beam as early as possible to drown out the students he considers “troglodytes,” “reprobates,” “degenerates,” as well as “vulgarians” and “cretins”.



Paul sees Angus as one of the few students at Barton with intellectual promise since he’s the only one to achieve success in his class. For the most part, Paul is resentful that just about any kid can get by if they’re backed by a wealthy family. The school administration resent him for failing a student whose senator dad recently made a huge donation to the school. He could care less what anyone says about him behind his back and is oblivious that he’s a loathed authority figure.

Mary has probably been at Barton as long as Paul, but her position lends her a certain invisibility. After all, who pays attention to the cafeteria manager? She silently sees it all though. It’s revealed that she’s chosen to remain at Barton because it’s the last place she saw her son, a Barton alum who was shipped off to Vietnam and killed in action. As one of the few Black employees working at Barton, a campus as white as the snow that blankets the ground, Mary started working there so that her son could attend as a student. Now, still very much grieving from her loss, Mary emanates a certain sadness and is lost in her chain-smoking, ignorant to the obvious interest the school custodian, Danny (Naheem Garcia), has in her. Apart from cooking for Paul and Angus, she’ll spend most of her time watching “The Newlywed Game”, a show which Paul finds fascinating since he doesn’t watch TV – and well, there’s nothing else to do.

This unlikely trio inevitably merges, mostly spending time together over meals. Conversations are attempted, but the awkwardness and boredom hang in the air. Paul tries to implement a scholastic schedule, but the rambunctious Angus balks at the thought since he’s the only kid left (he has a point) and winds up evading Paul within the large confines. At one point, a pointless and hilarious chase ensues, resulting in an out-of-breath Paul horrified after finding Angus injured on the gymnasium floor. After a trip to the hospital and a stop at a local restaurant, Paul and Angus begin to develop mutual respect. These are the moments in which David Hemingson’s screenplay adds subtle comedy to dramatic situations and seamlessly combines them with welcome character growth and quirks.

As the days get closer to Christmas, Payne, and Hemingson give the trio more time to get to know each other. They attend an off-campus Christmas Eve party at the home of fellow Barton administrator, Lydia Crane (a wonderful, Carrie Preston), set to the tune of Herb Alpert’s Christmas album. It’s a great environment for all three of them to see each other in a different light, away from Barton where they (and the audience) can see each other in a different light. Preston’s wonderful portrayal as the warm and kind colleague of Paul’s (who may or may not like him) is welcome and impressive, considering how memorable she is in a role with little screen time. She and Randolph soften up the material’s hardness here, drawing viewers into the overall story.



As Paul begins to ease up on Angus, he agrees to take him on an off-campus trip to Boston. Since the excursion is unauthorized by the school, Mary invites herself along and the three form an unexpected bond. Thanks to Randolph’s wonderfully vulnerable performance, Mary becomes the heart of the movie, softening Paul’s rough edges, often reminding him that it’s Christmas and he needs to lighten up, and offering Angus the needed love and acceptance he lacks. She embodies Mary with tremendous grace and the film would be at a loss without her. It’s during this trip that we learn more about this unlikely trio, like when Mary is dropped off at her sister’s place, and when Angus and Paul encounter two individuals from their respective pasts. It’s a reminder that there’s always so much more to a person than any first impression or stereotypes.

All three of the main actors in “The Holdovers” do an incredible job, gradually bringing out such relatable nuances and deftly handling their character’s complexities in both humorous and real ways. Giamatti has been around for a while and we can tend to forget how versatile he is. Although he’s played sad-sacks and grumps before, he often brings such a lonely sadness to such roles and that’s what’s under the surface of this cranky professor. He has a brilliant way of bringing humanity to such exhausting characters. In his acting debut, Sessa brings the kind of effortless naturalness that feels like a discovery. It’s no coincidence then that he was discovered by Payne while performing at Deerfield Academy, a preparatory school and one of the five Massachusetts school locations used for Barton. He’s the right age to convincingly act his age and that’s kind of rare to find.

It’s surprising that “The Holdovers” marks the first time Payne has set a film in the 70s considering many of his past films resemble Hal Ashby’s films from that decade. Both directors often include quirky outsiders or incorrigible misfits who embark on misadventures in which they wind up figuring out their lives somehow.

Besides Payne’s pairing with Hemingson’s 70s screenplay, there’s also the fitting visual approach taken by Bryld’s delicate 35mm camerawork. Every grainy frame or soft focus supports the period of the story. There’s also Ryan Warren Smith’s convincing production design and Wendy Chuck’s costume design which greatly contribute to the consistency of the period throughout the film. However, Payne sets the tone right from the start with a great retro main title sequence and studio identification (which will elicit an in-joke for viewers who know that Focus Features wasn’t around back then), along with an old-school MPAA “R” rating classification on screen, complete with analog aural pops and scratches.

One of the more heartwarming aspects of “The Holdovers” is how it reminds us that the holidays can be a struggle for some and it communicates this by avoiding saccharine moments and earning honest emotion thanks to its exceptional cast. There is authentic playfulness, pathos, and pain here that resonates with humor and poignant meaning.


RATING: ****



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: