‘The Holdovers’ review: The year’s warmest movie

‘The Holdovers’ review: The year’s warmest movie

It’s been a chilly summer at the movies.

Stories about retail products, the atomic bomb, a revisionist doll and CGI Harrison Ford have gobbled up our attention, for better or worse, but not because any of those varied titles have much heart.

Then there’s the “The Holdovers,” directed by Alexander Payne, which is set during frigid Christmastime at a Northeast boarding school that’s nearly empty of students. 

The lovable dramedy, which just screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is blanketed in snow and ice — and it’s the warmest cinematic experience you’ll have all year. 

movie review

Running time: 133 minutes. Rated R (language, some drug use and brief sexual material). In theaters Nov. 10.

It’s also the latest member of a genre I never get tired of: coming-of-age movies that take place during the 1960s and ‘70s. Nothing enlivens a film like not being bogged down by cellphones, helicopter parents or political correctness. 

In recent years, we have been gifted splendid ones including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.” “The Holdovers” joins their angsty ranks.

However, this is not another teen movie. With a screenplay by David Hemingson, Payne’s film is as much about two hurting adults as it is about an intelligent, rebellious student named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa).

It’s Christmas break at the Barton school, and the boys are returning home to their families. All of them, that is, except the holdovers — the six poor souls whose parents didn’t want them back for the holidays for whatever reason. The retro building they inhabit has the washed-out look of a grandparent’s basement.

Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti plays a vicious professor at a 1970s boys boarding school.
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Reluctantly chosen to watch over the misfits is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a crotchety history professor who’s on the rocks for failing the son of a major donor. 

“We can not sacrifice our integrity on the altar of their entitlement!” he yells at the headmaster.

He frequently speaks in Latin and Greek phrases, and defaults to pretentious jackass. If you’ve seen “Sideways” — Giamatti’s last collaboration with Payne — or HBO’s “John Adams,” you know the actor does complex jerks very well. 

The other employee stuck on campus is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Barton’s cook whose son Curtis was recently killed in Vietnam. By burying herself in work, she can ignore the fact that it’s her first Christmas without him. Until she can’t. The pressure-cooker role is Randolph’s best film work so far.

Alexander Payne, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph.
Alexander Payne (left) returns to form with “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Over two weeks, Paul, Mary and Angus — the smartest guy in class, but a lifelong screwup — form an unlikely, almost indiscernible bond. They embark on mini-adventures into town and further afield without, I should add, crossing any lines of appropriateness. Thanks to each other, they begin to hate their circumstances a little less. 

Coming-of-age films are also exciting opportunities to meet new stars. And Sessa, who looks like he’s dropped in from an early Wes Anderson movie, just about carries “The Holdovers” with his easy charm and mischievousness as Angus. He radiates kindness, even when his character acts out for fear of being unloved. It’s an all-around sublime performance.

There are a couple plot threads I found weird — particularly in the final push — that don’t land as powerfully as they intend to. But the resolution is immensely satisfying regardless of a few blips. It’s Payne’s finest work in years. 

“The Holdovers,” a likely Best Picture Oscar nominee, never loses hold of its audience.

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