Throughout much of The Holdovers, Angus and Paul have a battle of wills, with Paul trying to inflict strict discipline and Angus rebelling and acting out. But as Christmas day creeps closer, the duo and Mary can’t help but get to know a little more of each other’s secrets. They all have some dark things in their past that are keeping them apart from others. But can they open up enough to learn from each other?
Is this a formulaic setup? Maybe, but the direction, writing, and acting are so strong that you can’t help but be riveted, even though the majority of the movie is just two or three characters talking. They do get out into the world away from the school on some signature Alexander Payne misadventures, which keeps the film from feeling too much like a play. While Payne usually writes his features, he just had the initial idea here. Still, he didn’t feel he had the knowledge to write a convincing story set in a boarding school. When he was sent another script about a boarding school by Hemingson, the two decided to collaborate on what would become The Holdovers. The screenplay is strong, but the acting takes this to the next level.
“The screenplay is strong, but the acting takes this to the next level.”
Giamatti’s role is perfectly in his wheelhouse. Paul is a self-obsessed loner who sees flaws in everyone else but himself. In the same scene, the actor can switch between frightening imperiousness and tender humanity. But we all know he can act. Sessa is stunning in his first role. He’s got the sense of rebellion down perfectly, but we can tell it covers something deeper. After screening hundreds of actors for the part of Angus, Payne started auditioning kids in the drama classes at the boarding schools they were set to shoot at. That’s how Sessa was found. This kid has talent and will surely be a rising star. Meanwhile, Randolph excels, bringing a shadow of sadness to a character who is a fundamentally decent human caught in the middle between two guys who won’t let their guard down enough to find mutual respect.
If you’ve seen the trailer for The Holdovers, you know many of the major beats of the movie, even though the ending isn’t spoiled. And really, we’re here for all the moments between these people in this character piece. There’s a reason 70s cinema is so revered for astounding character studies. In this age of superheroes, it is nice to have a throwback that lets us see some normal humans working out their differences the old-fashioned way — by being stuck together.
The Holdovers screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…Angus and Paul have a battle of wills, with Paul trying to inflict strict discipline and Angus rebelling and acting out."