The Holdovers: Alexander Payne Reteams With Paul Giamatti

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne reteams with Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti in his newest film, The Holdovers.

Barton Academy adjunct professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) has the unfortunate luck of having to stay on campus during winter break in 1970. He doesn’t really want to be there but he doesn’t have much of a choice. Hunham failed a wealthy father’s son and now has to look over students with nowhere to go. Students should have put in the work but I digress. In any event, most of the students end up leaving when one of their fathers takes them on a ski trip. Unfortunately, the administration is unable to get ahold of Angus Tully’s (Dominic Sessa) mother, Judy (Gillian Vegman), or step-father, Stanley (Tate Donovan). This leads both Paul and Angus to have a lot of time bonding with each other as well as the head cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Mary’s only son was recently killed in action during the Vietnam War.

As we move through the film, we realize that the Barton professor and student are more alike than they know. I won’t get into the specifics here because of spoilers but it’s the little moments that help draw the laughs. Believe me, I really appreciated the comedic moments in the film especially when laughs are few and far between right now. Angus and Mary manage to talk Paul into driving to Boston during the break. Mary wants to spend time with his sister while Angus wants to spend time in Boston as was originally planned before his parents left him high and dry. Angus is a brilliant student but he’s also something of a troublemaker. He realizes what will happen if he gets in trouble again and it won’t be good news.

David Hemingson initially wrote his script as TV series pilot episode about an all-boys prep school in 1980. After Payne read it, he had had some ideas of his own and asked Hemingson to write a new script. Payne–a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter–told Hemingson to set the script a decade earlier with a very specific story in mind. The resulting film is one that very much feels like a 1970s movie. Whether its the lensing, desaturated palate, production design, costume design, sound design, or Mark Orton’s score, it has a striking sense of feeling authentic to the period. It could very well have been a recently discovered lost film being released in theaters for all to see. Furthermore, Payne opts against soundstages so as to film on location in Massachusetts.

Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph turn in solid performances, which is not surprising. I always expect a masterclass performance from Giamatti even in films such as Big Fat Liar. Giamatti’s performance here is no exception. Newcomer Dominic Sessa manages to hold his own on screen when acting opposite both actors. The actor, who is making his on-screen debut, brings a layer of vulnerability to playing Angus. He’ s also a lot like his character in that he also attended a boarding school. Imagine the pain one might feel upon learning that they cannot stay with their parents during the winter break!

The Holdovers feels very different from previous films in Payne’s filmography, including The Descendants, Nebraska, and Election. While I do own Sideways on Blu-ray, I’ve yet to actually watch the film and hope to do so when my focus will allow it. It’s the same focus that has led to difficulties in writing or watching films since October 7.  My initial plan was to watch and review the film in connection to The Holdovers coming out in theaters. Regardless, one will find themselves feeling for the characters while watching the film. I mean, The Holdovers walks a fine line between comedy and drama but the film is by far one of Alexander Payne’s emotional films to date.

DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
SCREENWRITER: David Hemingson
CAST: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, introducing Dominic Sessa, with Carrie Preston, Andrew Garman, Tate Donovan, Gillian Vigman, Brady Hepner, Naheem Garcia, Jim Kaplan, Alexander Cook, Michael Provost, Melissa McMeekin, Ian Dolley, Kelly AuCoin, Darby Lee-Stack

Focus Features released The Holdovers in theaters on October 7, 2023. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.