Movie review: The Holdovers

Directed by Alexander Payne

It’s almost winter break at a prestigious boys’ prep school in 1970. Most of the kids are going home, but five are the holdovers, unable to get away for the break. Thus, the name of the film.

A faculty member has to tend to them. One is assigned but gets out of the gig. The task then devolves to the demanding teacher of ancient civilizations, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who almost no one likes.

Then, the five teens are offered a way out, but only four can take advantage, leaving the bright but troubled Angus Tully (Dominick Sessa) stuck with Paul and the cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), deep in her own issues.

I liked this movie a lot: the characters, all broken in some manner, often change unexpectedly. One of the telling aspects is that I had seen the trailer for the movie a half dozen times. Those scenes, as shown in the movie, are actually funnier. Yet, there is serious character development.

The dialogue by David Heminson is delightful, especially Paul’s:  “I find the world a bitter and complicated place – and it seems to feel the same way about me.”

Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the breakout star here. Vanity Fair, in noting the 25 best performances of 2023, says, “In Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, Randolph proves her ability to settle in for a character-driven story that’s stripped of distraction and focused solely on her skills as an actor. As Mary, a school cafeteria administrator…  Randolph captures maternal pain while never allowing the grief to feel clichéd. Whenever she’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off her layered, nuanced performance in this moving dramedy. “


Several reviews use the sentence, “Paul Giamatti gives his best performance since Sideways,” the 2004 film that Payne also directed. The new movie received 96% positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while 91% of the audience concurred.

I suppose The Holdovers might become, in its weird way, a holiday classic, especially for anyone, in the words of one critic, “who has known the oppressive weight of Christmas loneliness.”

One critic complained, “It’s impossible not to notice how many scenes limp along, how many have nothing to do with the previous one, and how many fizzle out.” I didn’t think that was happening. I sensed that the story gave the viewer the idea that the relationship, especially between Paul and Angus, had gone as far as possible, but then, another layer would be revealed.

My wife and I saw The Holdovers at our Landmark Theatre, Spectrum 8, on December 2 in one of the larger theaters that was about half full.

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