Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: David Hemingson
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
Released: January 11, 2024
Grade: A

The Holdovers

Born in 1961, director Alexander Payne developed a passion for cinema growing up in the 1970s that shaped his career.  The two-time Oscar winner (Sideways, The Descendants) has made some wonderful films over the past three decades – Election remains one of the greatest dark comedies every made – but his latest outing, The Holdovers, represents a pivot.  It’s Payne’s first period piece flick and, by giving it the look and feel of a movie made in the 1970s (right the from the opening titles), it pays homage to the style of filmmaking he relished as a teenager.

It’s framed as a three-hander with each actor fitting beautifully into their respective characters.  Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man) is Professor Paul Hunham, a booze- loving, tenured teacher in ancient civilisations at a boarding school in New England.  He’s reminiscent of the lead in the Terrence Rattigan play The Browning Version in that he’s a disrespected, washed-up figure.  Students don’t like him because of his heavy workloads and tough marking, while staff see him an unhelpful, outdated academic who sticks too rigidly to old-school rules.

Tony Award nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Ghost) is Mary Lamb, the no-nonsense head cook in the school’s cafeteria whose son was killed during the year while serving in Vietnam.  Largely keeping to herself, she’s still struggling to process the grief and figure out her next steps in life.  The final member of the trio is newcomer Dominic Sessa who plays Angus Tully, an intelligent but socially awkward student.  He has a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way, particularly his classmates, and has family issues back home.

In using an age-old cinematic technique, screenwriter David Hemingston crafts a way to bring these three “broken” people together and, in spending time together, they find comfort and humour.  The school shuts down for the snow-filled Christmas holidays but, given Angus has no immediate family to return to, Professor Hunham is tasked with the role of caregiver.  They shack up in the infirmary (the only building with heat) while Mary provides their daily meals from whatever is left in the industrial refrigerators.

There’s so much to like about The Holdovers.  In terms of Payne’s direction, I adored the grainy look, the long fade-outs, the slow camera zooms, and the soothing melodies of the soundtrack.  Hemingson’s script is a cracker!  Humour is generated from the stinging barbs (“at least pretend to be a good person”), well-written one-liners, and expressive faces.  These are countered by dramatic shifts as characters open up about their past and we finally see behind their prickly exteriors.

Filled with an array of memorable scenes, The Holdovers is an exquisitely told tale.