The Holdovers is a delightful American period dramedy, directed by Alexander Payne. The movie showcases a talented ensemble cast, with Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb, and Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully. Set in 1970, it unfolds a heartwarming story of a history teacher's journey during the Christmas break at a New England boarding school, where he's forced to chaperon a group of students with nowhere else to go. From the very beginning, The Holdovers envelops the audience in an atmosphere that's as comforting as a warm blanket fresh from the dryer, paired with a cup of hot chocolate. It's a film that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, akin to popping a VHS copy of Home Alone into the old VCR, while also delivering the emotional depth of classic holiday films like It's a Wonderful Life.
The film excels in several aspects. It's clear that the setting, both in terms of place and time, plays a pivotal role in crafting the movie's atmosphere. The wintry landscapes capture the approaching holiday season and the isolation of the boarding school. The early 1970s are meticulously recreated, with period-accurate props, authentic cadence of speech, and a carefully selected score. Even before the year is explicitly mentioned, the audience is transported to that era within the first few minutes.
One of the remarkable achievements of the film is its pacing. Despite a run time exceeding two hours, the story never feels overly long. This is a testament to skillful editing and writing. The filmmakers understand that they have a compelling story in their hands and choose not to rush it, allowing audiences to savor every moment. They respect the viewer's time and create a space where storytelling can unfold at its own pace and may even leave the audience wanting more.
The story itself is both emotionally gripping and heartwarming while being technically well-crafted. It carefully weaves the peaks and valleys of this multi-character storyline into a seamless narrative. This thoughtful approach ensures that the film trusts viewers to be smart enough to understand the story while leaving no room for confusion about its essential plot points.
Additionally, the characters, particularly Hunham and Tully, are beautifully written and fully developed. Audiences gain a clear understanding of their backstories, intentions, and actions. Their interactions are reminiscent of classic sitcom duos, and this dynamic contributes to the film's charm. Furthermore, the story introduces refreshing twists to a familiar narrative, keeping the audience engaged and eliciting deeper emotional connections.
It should be emphasized that Paul Giamatti's portrayal of the curmudgeonly Hunham is nothing short of outstanding. He brings depth and nuance to the character, offering more than just a Scrooge-like figure during the Christmas season. Giamatti's performance, coupled with his convincing portrayal of a character with a glass eye, leaves audiences even questioning whether he had one all along.