The Holdovers is Bitter Sweet Note Perfect

Torna Mulconry

It’s Christmas time at Barton Academy a New England Prep school and the social elite that fills fifth-period calculus or 4th-period ancient history are home for their winter break. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a disliked principled professor of Ancient Classics forced to stay behind to take care of the exception that is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) who has nowhere to go. A task in which Giamatti’s Hunam seems to take a begrudging glee. Barking striking and invented put downs through long and empty hardwood hallways.

Now deemed a “hormonal vulgarian” Sessa has little reason to respect Giamatti’s fading authority as he begins to act out as he comes to grips with the death of his father, which creates some of the film’s finest moments. Trapped inside the campus walls ‘The Rubicon’ is crossed Giamatti’s eyes as Sessa parades around the strictly off-limits under-construction, gym floor with a wink to the camera in the film’s finest sequence.

Caught in between a child in Sessa’s case and a man child in Giamatti’s case, is Barton’s resident caterer Mary Lamb (Davine Joy Randolph). She is in mourning due to the death of her son during the Vietnam War, which occurs just before the Christmas break. Here lies the beauty of David Hemingson’s screenplay and what elevates “The Holdovers” to something unique. Each character is carrying their own personal loss throughout the film’s runtime and whether they find closure or companionship in one another is to be seen. But as the more slapstick elements of Sessa’s and Giamatti’s tormenting playout, a constant grounding device throughout the script is Randolph’s loss, which keeps the film on an even keel.

The Holdovers is a period piece, but unlike what else is out there. Director Alexander Payne said to the “Los Angela’s Times that he wished to take making a period film one step further by “not just conjuring up the mood of a bygone time, but to recapture a moviemaking sensibility that it pioneered.” To this effect “The Holdovers” has the look and feel of a film that was lost in the seventies, only to have been found at a yard sale, dusted off and released in 2023.

Payne accomplishes this by implementing camera movements of the era with crash zooms and long static shots. Wipe transitions and long dissolves are also commonplace, while the audio was mono-mixed which cracks and pops its way through long pages of dialogue. All of this along with an equally well-crafted-graduate-esque soundtrack makes for an entirely new take on period films which only makes the piece stronger.

All three unlikely companions have rightly done the rounds at award ceremonies so far this year with Sessa was picking up the best breakthrough performance at the Film Independent Spirit Awards already. While Giamatti is certainly Cillian Murphy’s strongest competition for the Oscar, it is Davine Joy Randolph who is the showstopper. The masks she adopts following the death of her son in “The Holdovers” is just the right degree of see-through and this performance is thoroughly deserving of all its acclaim. 

Torna Mulconry