The Holdovers Review
The Holdovers is exactly the kind of movie I typically greatly enjoy. A low-stakes, grounded, comedy-drama about interpersonal relationships. And it’s distributed by Focus Features! Even better! I should have already had my mind harkening back to movies such as Lost In Translation or Dan In Real Life.
But, for whatever reason, I kind of let The Holdovers pass me by while it was in theaters. Perhaps it was the trailer, with its throwback 70’s aesthetic and style that seemed just a bit too proud of itself for being different for its own good. Maybe it was the presentation of the Angus Tully character in the advertisements, which made him look more insufferable than charming. And then there’s the chance there was just too many other movies out at the same time that I wanted to see instead.
Regardless, it wasn’t until I started hearing praise upon praise being heaped on this little independent film–and that I saw it was streaming free on Peacock–that I relented and gave The Holdovers a try. I just could not escape folks talking about how much they enjoyed this flick and how they anticipate (or, at least, hope) it will become an awards season darling.
I ended up being pretty damn happy I gave it a go.
The Holdovers is the story of The Barton School, a New England boarding school mostly for the kids of the rich and influential (though not entirely). We meet Angus Tully, a smart-minded and smarter-mouthed student who is suffering through his mother’s new marriage. He’s at Barton, his fourth school of late in his life, and it’s his last chance to succeed without getting kicked out before he is shipped to a military academy.
One of his instructors is an Ancient History teacher named Mr. Hunham. Hunham is a long-tenured teacher at the school who nonetheless finds himself on thin ice due to his lack of concern if he fails Senators’ children or not. We see him early on getting an earful from the head of the school for not passing these kids whose parents are funding the whole shebang.
There’s also Barton’s head chef, Mary Lamb. A true blue collar working lady, Mary put her own son Curtis through Barton, only to see him get sent to the Vietnam War effort when he could not afford to go to college. As the story starts, her son was recently killed in action.
After the first act, these three misfits are left together at Barton over the Christmas and New Year break while everyone else heads home or on vacation. They are the titular holdovers of Barton, forced to live together on campus during the cold weeks of the holidays. And as the days pass, they each find they have more in common than they knew.
TWO UPS AND TWO DOWNS
+Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph play Tully, Hunham, and Mary respectively. And this is a movie that simply would not work without unimpeachable performances from its leads. This isn’t a movie driven by action or intensity. It’s all about dialogue, delivery, chemistry, and believability. And these three deliver all of those aspects in spares.
Sessa in particular is inspiring in how he simply refuses to be bowled over by the powerhouse of Giamatti. You just take Paul Giamatti for granted at times, but he’s such a sharp performer, capable of blending comedy and heart so well. And yet, the newcomer Sessa is right there hanging out on his level. He delivers a marvelous perfoemance here.
Of the three, Randolph is the distant third in terms of the importance of her character–this is MOSTLY Hunham and Tully’s story–but she gets a breakthrough scene at a Christmas party where she becomes overwhelmed with grief for her lost son. It’s not maudlin or cloying; she actually plays the moment full of rage. It’s an honest look at a part of the grieving process we don’t always get to see in cinema.
+The movie feels familiar and comfortable without ever becoming predictable or full of tropes. Particularly in the third act when I felt like I knew where everything was going, I was dead-wrong on the details, and it’s always nice to be surprised by a film in that regard. I was sitting and thinking “Well the third act conflict is going to be either X or Y…”, and it ended up being neither. The results of the third act when you get to the conclusion remain much the same as I might have thought, but the road taken is different. So good job on tricking me, film!
There’s also a reveal I didn’t see coming, which was both touching and depressing, as well. And again… it took me by surprise, and I loved that.
-The first act drags just a bit and takes some unnecessary twists and turns to get to the point of the movie. We actually start off with five holdover students, as the school’s quarterback, a racist bully, and two younger students are also temporarily left behind for the holidays. After a while, the quarterback’s dad rescues the others to swoop them away on a ski trip, but Angus remains left behind. This chunk of the movie is almost unnecessary, as not much would be lost if it skipped straight to Tully being all alone.
I say ALMOST unnecessary and not MUCH would be lost, because this segment gives us some extra insight into Tully. We see how good of a person he can be when he wakes up one night to one of the younger holdovers having wet the bed from a nightmare. It’s a sweet scene of character building, but I’m sure the movie could have established that some other way.
-The Holdovers is set in the 1970’s, and I’m not a hundred percent sure that era is really needed. There’s little the movie accomplishes with this setting that it couldn’t by just having it all take place in the 2000’s. You could have Mary’s son die in Afghanistan or Iraq or even just in an accident or disaster somewhere, so the Vietnam War isn’t exactly integral. To me, this setting just felt more like a gimmick than a necessity for the tale.
I’m not sure I see The Holdovers becoming the future Christmastime classic that I have seen others say it’s sure to be. And it might be a bit too heartwarming to end up as much of an awards season hero as some are hoping for. But that doesn’t change the fact that the movie is amazing anyway. I really loved this, and even with a slow start, I was all the way engaged by the third act. Truly great stuff here.