The Holdovers

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It’s easy to see The Holdovers as Alexander Payne’s riposte to all the moaning that Martin Scorsese and a few other members of the old guard were doing not so long ago about the predominance of superhero movies and how, you know, they don’t make ’em like they used to etc etc.

Payne has gone out and made one like they used to, a film set in 1971 attempting to look like a film from 1971 (right down to the “copyright MCMLXXI” buried in the credits) – grainy, human-focused, often ensemble works like American Graffiti or The Godfather or the entire oeuvre of John Cassavetes.

The action is set at a fancy school for the boys of rich people as Christmas is approaching. Everyone’s going home, except for a few “holdovers”, the kids whose parents are in unreachable parts of the world, or who just don’t care enough about their sons to fetch them.

Drafted in against his will to supervise these strays is Mr Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a classics teacher and stickler of the old school. The boys despise Hunham and call him “Walleye” on account of his squint – pause for a reverential moment here as we remember the joke about the cross-eyed teacher who can’t joke control his pupils. Hunham also smells on account of a medical condition and has a drink problem. Unsurprisingly, Hunham is not a hit with women.

They hunker down, the pissy and often pissed Mr Hunham, his antsy handful of unhappy boys, the school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son, a former pupil, has just been killed in Vietnam and, very occasionally, the janitor (Naheem Garcia).

Until a helicopter belonging to one of the boy’s parents arrives out of the blue and whisks all the boys away, except for Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), the smartest but also most awkward of them all. Now there’s just angry Tully, unsavoury Hunham and grieving but stoic Mary Lamb to stare down the barrel of the festive season.

Problems for all, and clear emotional arcs for all. A Christmas Carol meets The Dead Poets Society meets Goodbye Mr Chips kind of thing, with maybe just a touch of Dazed and Confused in there too.

Angus Tully and Mary Lamb share a moment
Angus and Mary share a moment

There will be epiphanies before the end credits roll. With only a nod to political realities (Vietnam) and shorn of the slightly satirical air that usually give his movies a bit of edge – the self-deluding characters of Sideways (also with Giamatti) or Election, for instance – Payne is revealed as a purveyor of corn, albeit high-class corn. Or is The Holdovers pastiching old-school Hollywood corn? That’s Payne’s big getout – if it feels a bit phoney that’s because that’s how they made movies back when MCMLXXI was a thing.

Wallow in the performances, which are great. Giamatti could phone in Mr Hunham – a decent guy gone wrong who honestly believes that a book of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the ideal Christmas gift – but he doesn’t. He makes the slightly desperate Mr Hunham a solid presence. Sessa is a newbie who’s only done stage work and came from one of the schools Payne used as a location. Rudolph is the best thing in it (you might know her as the perma-shouty cop in Only Murders in the Building), layering a character who might have been just a cipher – black woman in a white man’s world – into something warm and plausible. Garcia registers, though his character isn’t in it enough to really make a difference.

To one side, in the ensemble scenes that are very reminiscent of an early 1970s movie, are Carrie Preston as a fellow teacher who invites the lonesome threesome to a party on Christmas Eve, where Tully meets Elise (Darby Lee-Stack), a young woman who brightens up his evening. Lee-Stack, on screen only for a handful of minutes in her feature debut, brightens up ours too, and is obviously a star in the making.

It’s all shot on real locations, which really helps and also adds to the 1970s ambience, and in post production Eigil Bryld’s relaxed cinematography with the occasional olde-worlde zoom shot is overlaid with all sort of grain and judder, to suggest this might have been shot on good old celluloid.

If this were really a film from the 1970s, Cat Stevens would turn up on the soundtrack, so it’s no surpise when he does here, though it’s also nice to be reminded how good Labi Siffre was back in the day. They’re both purveyors of lyrical, tender and warm music suited to the mood Payne is conjuring here. Frank Capra, move over.

The Holdovers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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