Saturday, February 24, 2024

‘The Holdovers’ Finds Comfort in Unexpected Places

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The holidays are about family, but it can be the loneliest feeling for those without one or who cannot be with those they love. Perhaps that is why the season comes rife with a bittersweet sense. Because we have all been alone during the holidays at one point or another, loneliness during these few months feels worse than at any other time of the year.

Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers feels like an adaptation of a book. Possibly because Dave Hemingson’s script brings a literate quality to Payne’s film, providing vast swaths of room for the characters to ponder their emotions. “I am a bitter and complicated man, and the world seems to feel the same way about me.” Payne and Hemingson take a conventional story and find grace notes in an old, familiar story.

Paul (Paul Giamatti) unveils his pathetic Christmas Tree

Payne and Heminson’s set The Holdovers in the 70s not to be nostalgic but to hold a mirror to today. Many of the issues of the time, including civil rights, class issues, unjust wars, and a deep mistrust of government, are still relevant today. One character even opines about “how the world is on fire” and how helpless they feel, reminding us that as insurmountable as these problems may feel, they are not new.

Lensed by Eigil Bryld, The Holdovers feels transportive. Payne wanted the film to feel authentic to the time, like a piece of lost media. Using CGI to add falling snow, affecting the frames’ color grading and tinting, makes the movie feel specific to the time. It’s not a gimmick instead, it is akin to time travel. Bryld and Payne film in large spaces, magnifying the characters’ isolation from each other while finding ways to put them in cramped areas whenever they feel connected.

The Holdovers is a simple movie filled with simple pleasures. Paul Giamatti seems genetically bred for roles like Paul Hunham, a classic history teacher with a lazy eye, despised by his students and most of the faculty of Barton Academy. Rumpled and reeking of body odor and alcohol, he is as unhappy to be there as his students. 

He is out of time and place at the elite prep school, uncompromising in his principles as he flunks sons of Senators, much to the chagrin of the headmaster, Dr. Hardy Wooddrip (Andrew Garman). Yet, the head of the cafeteria, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), respects Paul for flunking the little bastard. In an ocean of elites and ass-kissers, Paul and Mary feel acutely aware of how unfair the world really is.

At the heart of The Holdovers is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a rich brat brighter than the average elite snob and more attuned to the cruelty of his world and thus more compassionate. If only he’d pull his head out of his ass he might grow up into a good man. Angus Tully, it must be said, is also just a magnificent name for a character, the sound of which screams “entitled asshole.” 

Yet, Hemingson’s script shows us that while Angus might be a tool, he is not as sociopathic as his fellow students. Unexpectedly stranded at Barton over the holidays, when his recently married mother, Judy (Gillian Vigman), cancels their Christmas plans in favor of a honeymoon for her new husband, Angus feels abandoned. Stuck with the class bully, the new star Quarterback, and two snot-nosed freshmen, Angus feels the world is out to get him.

Hemingson and Payne paint the characters with a sense of understanding, allowing them faults and frailties that, while annoying, are never quite damning. Hemingson’s script is clever in the little ways it neatly isolates the three main characters. The quarterback’s father invites everyone to the slopes, and Angus’s mother is the only one they can’t get a hold of to ask her permission.

Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Paul (Giamatti), and Angus (Dominic Sessa) exchange gifts

What unravels is three lost and wounded souls find solace in each other. Paul, Mary, and Angus are all stuck in a holding pattern. Paul seems frozen in time teaching at Barton while everyone around him gets promoted or leaves for better, more prestigious schools. Mary seems tied to Barton after her son, Curtis, was killed in Vietnam and is afraid to leave the last place the two were together. All the while Angus is constantly on the verge of being kicked out and being shipped to a military academy.

The Holdovers take great care in painting these characters with a fine brush, giving Giamatti, Randolph, and Sessa the space they need to find and express themselves. You will not find any scenes of grandstanding or sermonizing. The commentary of the time is there between the cracks in how people behave and what they say. The way the school bully objects to Paul asking Mary to join them for dinner shows the racism of the class, while Paul’s outrage shows his understanding of what isn’t being said.

At one point, Angus gets into a fight at a diner. Not because he is a dick, but because he’s a kid who doesn’t understand how to read a situation and is tired of being told “no” by adults. Paul sees one of the men, who has lost a hand and is wearing an Army jacket. He offers to buy him a beer and smooths the situation over. As they leave, Angus is confused about why he bought the guy a beer.

What follows is an exchange rife with emotion, and if a lesser director than Payne were working with an average script, not by Hemingson, the scene would have stalled as they laid out the issues point by point. Instead, Paul tells Angus he wouldn’t understand because boys from Barton don’t go to Vietnam. “They go to Cornell, Yale, or Harvard.” Angus sulks and says, “Except Curtis Lamb.” 

Giamatti’s Paul repeats the line, the timber of his voice embroiled with exhausted rage, as he subtly begs Angus to see the difference. Sessa, in his film debut with his big watery eyes, always seems on the verge of crying in frustration. He’s told he’s entitled at every turn, but he’s just a kid looking for a hug from anyone.

Likewise, Randolph, as Mary, feels as if she is coming apart from the inside. While at a party, she puts on a record that her son Curtis used to love and obsessively plays it repeatedly. A partygoer tells her to change the record, prompting her to respond with a single line, poised with heartache and unrestrained grief. 

A patchwork family, Mary, Paul, and Angus fight and bond over the holidays. Getting used to each other, bonding, picking at wounds, and eventually, by the end, coming to a crossroads-sometimes literally.

The characters in The Holdovers don’t live in ignorance of the issues so much as they live helplessly and unsure how to speak or address them. The breadth of the words unsaid is as important as those offered in comfort or incisive insults. The “penis cancer in human form” is among my favorite. Payne and Hemingson acutely observe how people think with Bryld’s compassionate lens holding on to them as they struggle to find the words to express the turmoil of feelings inside.

Angus (Sessa) and Mary (Randolph) find comfort in each other.

Shrouded in the New England countryside, The Holdovers feels chilly, but the soundtrack filled with songs of that era and the quiet choral rendering of the Barton school choir imbue the film with a contemplative solace. Bryld’s camera captures the forlornliness of the weather and the season without falling into despair.

The Holdovers is a Christmas movie about found family but never feels saccharine or melodramatic. Hemingson’s script comes by the obstacles honestly and handles them with a deft understanding of humanity. In the end, that’s what makes The Holdovers so captivating: the way Payne, Hemingson, and Byrld labor to bring out the humanism of the story and its characters.  

Images courtesy of Focus Features

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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