English, Film, Review, USA

The Holdovers

The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne, stands as solid testament to the age-old adage, “Never count an auteur out.” The film brings back all the elements that make a Payne outing an engaging watch – the dry humour balanced with the humanity and depth of his characters, set in simple backdrops. 

Set in the winter of 1970, the film looks at strict and cranky teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who is punished by the headmaster of a New England prep school (Barton Academy) for failing the child of the school’s key donor. As a result, he is asked to stay back in school during the holidays to oversee remedial students. Angus (Dominic Sessa), although a decent student, is asked by his mother to stay back at school for the holidays because she wants to go for a long overdue honeymoon with her new husband. Overcome by great grief due to the loss of her young son, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cafeteria manager, chooses to stay back for the holidays. All of them, for different reasons are literally and/or emotionally ‘heldover’ and not one of them wants to be where they are.

The Holdovers is more than just a feel good, ‘Capra-esque’ Christmas film. It is a tale of three individuals, each at a different stage in their life, navigating through their personal angst and issues within the confines of their social construct. What is interesting to note is how Payne and writer David Hemingson represent themes of pain, angst and personal tribulation without ever over-sentimentalizing. The film, in subtext, also deals with elitism embedded in prestigious educational institutions, and the equivalent disdain that ‘the outsiders’, who exist within its framework have towards those who have ‘gotten it easy’. At its core however, it is a tale of an unlikely friendship – between a maladjusted student and his cold hearted, grumpy teacher.

We have all had that one teacher in high school, who seemed to take their personal frustration out on students thereby gaining the reputation or infamy of being a tyrant. Paul is one such teacher, who is almost sadistic in the way he deals with his students on the pretext of ‘instilling in them great character’. He truly believes that most of his students are entitled brats who cannot survive in the real world if not for their rich fathers. It’s almost as though he is waiting for people to faulter or fail and is consistently despised by all – his students and fellow colleagues alike. As Angus points out – Paul “smells like fish” and “has definitely remained a virgin all his life.” Angus, according to Paul is a “constant pain in the ass“, who has no regard and respect for rules and is from a generation that uses “integrity as a punchline.” Mary is constantly caught between the student-teacher crossfire whilst bravely dealing with the loss of her son and Angus’ school-mate, Curtis, who gave his life in the ongoing Vietnam war.

It is quite clear from the outset, that Paul has given up on companionship. Highly eloquent, he throws around parables on the Greek and Roman empire while interacting and even punishing his students. A man who clearly detests being vulnerable in front of others, there are moments when his perceptiveness and empathy comes through as when one of the students insensitively talks about Mary’s martyred son, Curtis. His reluctance to reveal his softer side is understandable, since whenever he is nice to someone, they find a way to disappoint him. We, over the course of the film, learn that there is more than meets the eye and his stone cold, obnoxious exterior is home to a well-intentioned, good-natured mentor who really wants to bring out the best in his students.

Angus comes across as a typical, eccentric teenager who truly believes that the entire world is against him. What comes across as unwarranted angst and frustration initially is later justified as deep unhealed wounds of the past unravel. His journey of growth from an angry young man to someone who realises his true inner potential, is beautifully fleshed out. Mary, on the other hand, is unwilling to accept her son’s reality and move on. Acting as a glue between Angus and Paul’s fragile dynamic, she too ultimately finds her own solace in her sister’s pregnancy.

Each performance in the film is carefully crafted and restrained whilst maintaining an element of light-heartedness and endearment, even when characters experience their lowest of lows. The dialogue is almost a separate character in and of itself, that wittily unravels each character’s complex and deep past, explaining their  current personality. The piece de resistance of the film however, is the celluloid film-like visuals that immediately transport the viewer back to the 1970s. The grain, scratches, emulsion and soft-focus that is only found by shooting on film stock, and the static-shot cinematography is reminiscent of the aesthetic found in older film classics. Surprisingly, the film was completely shot digitally and the makers went to great lengths to achieve a celluloid look while ensuring that it doesn’t shout and scream for attention, but rather submits itself to the world-building and context of the film’s narrative. The retro-style title cards and production design serve their purpose wholly, greatly contributing to the film’s mood and tone. Payne’s effort to make the film sound like a ‘70s classic is also noteworthy. The entire soundscape of the film has a meticulously crafted vintage-sound quality to it, added to which Mark Orton’s non-diegetic score when married to hit Christmas tunes and other songs of the 70s, have a time-machine like effect.

On a personal note, if one were to really nitpick, the equation between Angus and his mother could have had even more impact, had the character of Angus’ mother been further explored. Agreed, the film is not about Angus and his mother – but currently it seems as though she is almost unempathetic to her own son’s situation and is more focused on moving on with her own life – a surprising stance for a mother to take.

All said and done, The Holdovers is a harmonious marriage of sincere craftsmanship, honest storytelling and authentic performances, that go beyond the Christmas movie stereotype, leaving the viewer highly satisfied and even teary-eyed after watching it. 


English, Drama, Comedy, Color

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