There are movies that change us.
They alter our DNA. They make us laugh. They make us cry. They make us think. They make us feel. They make us reflect. They simply change our lives for the better.
For me, Paddington 2 was such a film.
Alexander Payne's The Holdovers has become the most recent such a film, a film that touched me on such a deep level that I can't write about it or think about it without laughing or crying or feeling or thinking or loving.
The closing night film at my hometown's Heartland International Film Festival, The Holdovers is a film I love and it's a film I believe you will love. Starring Paul Giamatti, collaborating with Payne for the first time since 2004's Sideways, The Holdovers centers itself around Giamatti's Paul Hunham, a universally hated professor, by both students and staff, at the prestigious Barton Academy in the early 70's.
Yes, you could say that The Holdovers is the latest in a long line of heartfelt, semi-inspirational school-based films though that would be an over-simplification of the story that screenwriter David Hemingson tells here. While The Holdovers is heartfelt, it's easy to say that what most people will appreciate about it is its abundant humor. The Holdovers is an immensely funny film, humor that is masterfully brought to life in a surprisingly non-cynical way by a filmmaker doing his best work in years and an ensemble up to the task of finding every magnificent nuance of this story.
Quite simply, in a career full of highs Giamatti has never been better.
While Giamatti is a one-time Academy Award-nominated actor (2006's Cinderella Man), it feels nearly criminal to me that he remains largely ignored by The Academy with the most egregious example being, of course, for Payne's Sideways. The Holdovers will, if there's any justice, finally lead to Giamatti getting the acclaim he's long deserved.
While I've never been quite as down on Payne's Downsizing as many, The Holdovers feels like a return to the Payne we know and love. While Payne has occasionally been accused approaching his characters with a sort of jaded cynicism, there's a purity of presence throughout The Holdovers that feels inspired and refreshing. It's as if Payne looked at Hemingson's script and said "I love these characters and I want to tell their stories." The Holdovers is absolutely one of the year's best films.
Giamatti's Hunham feels like a frustrated loner whose presence in academia is as much about a sense of authority as it is actually wanting to teach. Prone to gleefully handing out failing grades just before the holidays along with major assignments over the scool's two-week break, Hunham finds himself in the awkward position of being tasked with supervising the school's "holdovers," those students who have no place to go over break so stay behind at the residential school.
An initial small group rather quickly becomes only 15-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa), Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Mary, the school's head cook, and Hunham. You'll likely guess that each of the three is at vital point in their lives and, yes, they will undoubtedly influence each other in profound, inspirational, and often very funny ways.
There are a myriad of ways that The Holdovers could have gone wrong, though with this director and with this ensemble it never feels at risk of doing so. Setting the film in the early 70's adds an aura of Vietnam-era tension as we learn more about the largely disconnected Angus's life and we find our hearts and minds moving a few steps forward and wondering what's in his future.
While it may feel like The Holdovers is formulaic, Payne makes sure it never feels less than fresh. In the early going, we should hate Hunham but Giamatti makes sure we never do. There's more to him, we just know it, and as Giamatti peels away his layers I found myself laughing and I found myself absolutely sobbing.
Heck, to be honest, I'm absolutely sobbing even as I write this.
In what is destined to also be a recognized performance, Da'Vine Joy Randolph is luminous as Mary, a grieving woman whose son has just been killed in Vietnam and whose grief is palpable but understated and vulnerable. Randolph seems to understand Mary so innately that you can't help but feel like you're getting to know her as well. It's a brilliant, award-worthy performance.
Then, of course, there's the newcomer Sessa. He keeps a perfect rhythm with Giamatti and the two are absolutely beautiful together. Initially difficult to grasp, we come to know and understand and empathize with Angus. I wouldn't be surprised to see Sessa recognized throughout awards season and this is most certainly a marvelous breakout.
Lensing by Eigil Bryld captures both the humor and the heart of The Holdovers while leaning mightily into the 1970s. Mark Orton's original music is immersive and inspired. Every aspect of the film's production, from Ryan Wsrren Smith's production design to Wendy Chuck's costumes, practically bathes us in both the film's setting and Hemingson's storytelling.
There are films that change us.
They make us stop and take notice of ourselves and the world around us. In a world that can be so jaded, they help us feel loved and noticed and connected once again. They make us realize we matter and they hold us tight and never let us go.
The Holdovers is such a film and it is, I will state again, absolutely one of the best films of 2023.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic