I discovered Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth in middle school and was immediately hooked. Payne is a terrific filmmaker and storyteller who knows how to create memorable characters. He has made several iconic films, including Election, Sideways, and The Descendents. In 2017, Payne released Downsizing, which premiered at the Venice and Telluride Film Festival. The film was met with mixed reviews and several claims from critics and audiences, labeling it “racist.” After Downsizing became a massive disappointment, Payne took several years off from filmmaking. Six years later, Payne is back with his latest film, The Holdovers.
The Holdovers reunites Alexander Payne with Paul Giamatti for the first time since Sideways. In the film, Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a bitter history teacher whom everyone at Barton Academy seems to hate. On the last day of school, Paul learns he is assigned to be the holdover supervisor for the Christmas break. Paul begrudgingly accepts the assignment where he is forced to supervise five students with nowhere else to go for two weeks over the holiday. Amongst the students is a troubled boy named August Tully (Dominic Sessa), who, during the break, forms an unlikely friendship with Paul.
Alexander Payne loves to tell stories that embrace and celebrate the power of the human connection. The human connection is the heart and soul of this film. The bulk of the film is centered around three characters: Paul, Angus, and Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). On the surface, each character may seem wildly different, but as time passes, you learn they all share a familiar feeling of isolation from the rest of the world.
Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson put so much time and effort into developing each of these three characters. As a viewer, you get to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes with them and learn what makes each tick. By the time the film ends, you completely understand why Paul is the way he is as you learn about his past and shortcomings. As a viewer, it is like you are getting to know three new friends. While none of these characters are perfect, the more you learn about them, the more time you want to spend time with them.
The Holdovers also finds that perfect balance of comedy and drama. Several scenes are very clever and humorous, while others are emotional and sad. Paul Giamatti’s line delivery is excellent, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph surprised me by taking on the role of a mother struggling to overcome the loss of her son. Newcomer Dominic Sessa holds his own. He brings a lot of depth to the role of Angus and does a fantastic job acting alongside two incredible performances from Giamatti and Joy Randolph.
While there is a lot to like and admire about The Holdovers, I have to say that I have a few issues with it. My first issue is something that I have been saying a lot lately: the film’s pacing is a bit off. The first half takes too much time to find its footing, and with a movie that runs well over 2hrs, that was a bit of an issue. I also feel like certain scenes, especially in the first act, didn’t feel completely necessary to the film’s plot. A perfect example of this is the scene where one of the holdover students pees in his bed. It’s like, why is this scene even in the movie?
Also, the entire “holdover” setup involving four other students was unnecessary and a total time suck. Payne and Hemingson could have mentioned that five students would be staying during the break and then, with a single scene involving a phone call, could have streamlined the story arc of the four students. It made very little sense to take the time to introduce four characters who leave less than 30 minutes in and don’t show up again until the final five minutes. It made the film feel longer than needed while failing to add anything worthwhile to the plot.
The Holdovers was the second film I saw at the Telluride Film Festival and the one I have thought about most over the past three days. This is a sharply written dramedy with memorable, nuanced, and incredibly likable characters—a true return to form for Alexander Payne. Acting-wise, Paul Giamatti has delivered his finest performance since Sideways, and one can hope that he will receive an actor nomination because it is long overdue. The Holdovers has officially secured its ranking as one of the year’s best films.