'The Holdovers' TIFF Review: Alexander Payne delivers a new seasonal gem
Courtesy of Focus Features
Watching Alexander Payne’s latest film, “The Holdovers,” which premiered at Telluride before a Toronto bow, is like getting a warm hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years. In an era where streaming has dominated the cinema ecosystem, few movies dare to capture the pathos of what was once considered “Oscar” bait. If this was the early nineties, you would have seen “The Holdovers’ debut at Sundance, acquired by a Miramax-esq company (who are ironically distributing it alongside Focus Features) and slowly made its way through the award gauntlet. Basically, this is just a roundabout way of saying, they don’t make them like they used to.
It’s a return for the Payne who made “Nebraska” and “Sideways” and not the one who helmed the poorly executed “Downsizing.” He isn’t dabbling with weighty themes of climate change or the perils of human extinction this time around, on the contrary, “The Holdovers” is arguably the feel-good movie of the autumn season that would pair nicely alongside “Dead Poets Society.” In terms of pure vibes and those looking for a welcome dose of nostalgia, Payne doesn’t hold back: The film is presented in a matted 35mm aspect ratio (you can see the scratches throughout the movie), and begins with old studio logos as if he’s transporting audiences forty years ago when these movies were made consistently. And I mean that as a complement in the best way possible.
“The Holdovers” isn’t groundbreaking by any measure of the word, but what it’s able to do within the framework of a simplistic story is a breath of fresh air. In that it manages to get an all timer performance from the great Paul Giamatti, discover a real gem in newcomer Dominic Sessa and finally gives the wonderful Da’Vine Joy Randolph the role she deserves is just a bonus.
Giamatti, who hasn’t been given this type of meaty Best Actor material in years, plays strict Ancient Civilizations professor Paul Hunham. He’s got a strict moral code that often clashes with his superiors at the preppy Barton Academy in upstate New York, where the objective, it seems, is to give students with wealthy parents the freedom to do whatever they want. He’s been anointed to be a holdover, or a glorified babysitter for students with no place to go for the holidays (not that he was going anywhere either). He’s saddled with the wise-cracking though incredibly smart teen, Angus Tully (Sessa) who collectively, alongside grieving mother and cafeteria supervisor, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), make an interesting trio.
Paul would rather drown his sorrow in a pint of Jim Beam than confront his own problems; Angus has been neglected by his parents; and Mary’s son recently died fighting in the Vietnam war. Here we have three outcasts who are more alike than it first appears and the screenplay by David Hemingson juggles their personalities beautifully. In a lesser writer’s hands, the dynamic would be strained or inauthentic, but here, we’re just focused on three displaced souls as they are hunkered down in a cold, snowy boarding school while everyone else is celebrating what’s presumably the greatest time of year.
It makes for a rewarding viewing experience, especially when you account for Giamatti’s wild facial expressions that deserve an award nomination all on their own. He’s joined in equal measure by Sessa who impressively manages to square off against his more seasoned co-star with ease and then there’s Randolph in a role that finally gives her something to dig into. As the grief stricken mother, she’s spellbinding and should have no trouble waltzing into the crowded Oscar race next season.
A movie as much about the relationships we choose to have as it is about the lies we tell ourselves to survive, “The Holdovers” grasps those values with a nuanced versatility. It understands the holidays aren’t a safe haven for everyone and sometimes you need to find yourself in unexpected circumstances in order to have compassion for others. Payne and Heminsgon haven’t rewritten the playbook, but they have constructed an encompassing worldview that’s high on life and everything in between.
THE HOLDVERS played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features will release the film in theaters Friday, November 10th.