Written by Tom Augustine.
I don’t have evidence to back this up beyond what I’ve read and watched, but it seems like Alexander Payne might be a pretty annoying guy to know. Much like that other neurotic, white, American filmmaker of handsome dramedies, Noah Baumbach, there’s an anxiousness, a general feeling of discomfort blended with a little bit of egotism to them that, perhaps tellingly, gives them the emotional range to play a distinct key in the musical panoply of Western cinema. How else would you explain the unique blend of unbearable and unbearably watchable that make up the protagonists of Election or Sideways? Both filmmakers make mature commercial films – that is to say, the kind of grown-up films that would probably bore young audiences to tears (as evidenced to me by the teen in front of me at the screening of The Holdovers who spent much of the runtime on Snapchat), but which produce tears of laughter and rupturing sadness from the olds in the room, myself included. I think it’s maybe this slightly grating persona (I’m thinking of recent interviews in which Payne has decried modern movies as being ‘too long’ and blamed filmmakers, not studios, for making less adult dramas – sigh) both filmmakers have cultivated that have allowed them to emerge to the forefront of this particular kind of cinematic storytelling, following the path Hal Ashby and Woody Allen once introduced. Leaving the screening, my girlfriend mentioned that Payne’s new film reminded her of Baumbach’s excellent The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected, and I have to agree, in the sense that they both locate that sensitive emotional range that rings true in a milky, misty-eyed way – they’re both earnest, kind-hearted, and (much to Payne’s reported chagrin), cosy.
The Holdovers is set during Christmas, in a snowbound, stuffy upper class boarding school. It’s a deliberate throwback to the nostalgic cinema of the Seventies – Harold and Maude-core, you could say – when people would go to see films about regular, unextraordinary people. The Holdovers is nostalgic, and so it is warm and cosy – this is what makes it so very great. In The Holdovers, a crotchety, ageing and reclusive history teacher named Paul Hunnam (Paul Giamatti) has been selected (or rather, punished for his antisocial behaviour) to watch over the children of wintry New England boarding school Barton Academy whose families have, for whatever reason, declined to welcome them home over the Christmas holidays. The number of children trapped at the Academy? One – moody teen Angus (Dominic Sessa), who’s absent mother (we learn has recently remarried following the loss of Angus’ father) has decided to go on honeymoon instead. Joining them for the period is the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), grieving the loss of her own teen son who recently died in the combat zone of Vietnam. None of them want to be there – especially not in the company of each other. Mr Hunnam is known as an impersonal blowhard who seemingly relishes putting his (mostly rich) students through the intellectual ringer, while Angus is alienated from both his fellow students and his teachers – he’s smarter than the other boys, but also more rebellious. Naturally, these are prime conditions for the three to bring out the more human side of each other.
Sideways and Election director Alexander Payne’s exquisite new Christmas-set dramedy is a marvellously traditional, mature film of humble ambition. A throwback to a more grounded era of cinema, it is Payne’s finest work in many years, anchored by three tremendous performances.
Little in The Holdovers is new. In fact, the film prides itself on its old-fashionedness – it opens with Seventies-era production company logos for Universal, Miramax and the like, and features digitally inserted ‘camera grain’ to suggest the use of old film stock. Though some have derided this method as reducing the film to pastiche of these kinds of films of the Seventies, the utilisation of these and other throwback methods (a gentle acoustic score featuring Cat Stevens and Labi Siffre; long crossfades between scenes, and so on) are merely entryways, table-setting. Payne finds within the shell of these era appropriations the beating heart of a story that is both genuinely earnest and genuinely crowd-pleasing, but no less deserving of merit because of those things. There is real, devastating drama in here – each character is reflecting on a life that has not panned out how they hoped, drowning under the weight of just existing day-to-day. The film feels so good not because of its ample humour, courtesy of a magnificent script, but because of its acknowledgement that so much of life feels so bad.
This is Payne’s first film since the commercial flop Downsizing, which has since built a small cult fanbase – and one gets the sense that the director is going back to basics. This is a modest film with modest intentions, the key to its modest magnificence. He has reunited with Giamatti, perhaps his finest sparring partner, the one who made Sideways such a sensation nearly two decades ago. Giamatti, it’s fair to say, has never been better. His performance is deeply considered – funny, wounding, acerbic, delightful – but never dull or overly telegraphed. Consider a small moment, where Hunnam is wandering the school grounds. He finds a football in the snow and picks it up. We know that this unfit and crusty old bastard is not going to deliver an astonishing throw, and yet Giamatti’s physical comedy chops when he finally unleashes the pigskin are somehow beyond imagining, the mark of one of our finest actors. He’s matched by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a highlight in pretty much everything she’s ever been in (she almost gave The Idol a pulse, for example), here revealing new depths. We feel her deep sadness radiating off the screen, a woman entirely alone and nowhere near done processing the loss of her beautiful young son, taken before he turned twenty. Then there’s the debut performance of Dominic Sessa, drawn into the film from obscurity. His turn is fiery and passionate, the definition of ‘star-making’. He holds his own against Giamatti, and their bond is of the warm caramel movie-magic kind that makes you never want to stop watching.
Currently I’m up near the top of the North Island on holiday – we went to Kerikeri’s lovely small-town movie-house Cathay Cinemas to watch The Holdovers, who’s snow-laden world is about as far from the world I currently reside in (I’m very sunburnt). The Holdovers was not challenging, in the sense that its confident, gentle images weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but the feeling the film produced is rare these days (they really don’t make ‘em like they used to), and made the screening one of my favourite cinema experiences of the last year. It’s an uncommon pleasure, in 2024, to feel so held in the hands of an assured craftsman, who knows just what to do to maximise the emotional punch of these characters we’ve never met before but feel we know so well. When I watch a film like The Holdovers, I feel a pang of memory. I’m taken back to being a small child, carried to bed by my parents after a long car trip like the one I took from Auckland to the north, and hearing them converse in the kitchen, seeing the warm light under my door and knowing there are other people in the world, just a few steps away. The Holdovers is cosy in the way we felt cosy in our beds before we drifted off to sleep – it’s a film of deep comfort. It may just be Payne’s finest work – it’s a Christmas story not to be missed.
The Holdovers is in cinemas now.
Movie title: The Holdovers (Payne, 2024)
Movie description: Sideways and Election director Alexander Payne’s exquisite new Christmas-set dramedy is a marvellously traditional, mature film of humble ambition. A throwback to a more grounded era of cinema, it is Payne’s finest work in many years, anchored by three tremendous performances.
Date published: January 18, 2024
Country: United States
Author: David Hemingson
Director(s): Alexander Payne
Actor(s): Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
Genre: Comedy, Drama