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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

'The Holdovers': A new Christmas movie classic

Trey Paine | The Observer

The holiday season can be full of abundant warmth and spirit, as it is a time of connection and celebration. However, it’s also equally a time of significant vulnerability and pain which can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, grief and regret. We often see films about those positive elements of the holiday season. “The Holdovers” dares to explore the latter with incredible results, deftly balancing heartbreaking drama and hilarious comedy in a masterful character study.

“The Holdovers” takes place at a sleepy New England boarding school in 1970. Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly professor, has been begrudgingly assigned to stay on campus during Christmas break to watch over the holdovers, the kids who don’t return home for the break. While initially hostile toward the situation, he eventually forges a strong bond with a student named Angus and the school cook named Mary, as the three of them spend the holiday season together in the abandoned spaces of the boarding school.

The film's simple premise enables it to have some outstanding character drama and exploration. The three main characters each have their unique, captivating issues. Paul has deep regrets about his life due to his squandered career success and lack of personal intimacy. Angus is distraught that he’s without his family for the holidays, which only makes his preexisting familial problems worse, and Mary is still grieving over the loss of her only son, who died in Vietnam shortly after graduating from the boarding school. All three characters are wounded souls, but they provide solace and support to one another during a holiday season that reminds them of their pain. This makes for a profoundly empathetic movie that masterfully fleshes out the three main characters and leaves you significantly invested in their lives. While the film often delves into depressing territory, it is frequently hilarious, for the verbal spats and interactions these characters have are full of wit and charm. Furthermore, the support and love these characters have for each other keeps the film optimistic and wholesome. Yes, they are struggling, but they are now no longer alone in their struggle. 

The three excellent central performances bolster the character-driven story. Paul Giamatti is sensational and completely embodies his character and his transition from a cranky, belligerent professor to a vulnerable, caring mentor. Dominic Sessa is also fantastic in his first movie role, playing the angsty but ultimately pained teen. Moreover, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary gives a heartbreaking performance as a grieving mother struggling to move past the death of her son.

The film’s direction is wonderfully committed to the 1970s aesthetic. “The Holdovers” is shot on film and looks beautiful and textured with its grain. The authenticity of the vintage New England setting never falters due to excellent costume and set design. It truly felt like being transported back to a bygone time. There are also a lot of strong needle drops throughout that perfectly complement the tone of the movie. Furthermore, director Alexander Payne’s blocking and composition are always evocative and excellent, effectively heightening the emotion of every scene.

“The Holdovers” is a new holiday classic for me. It’s a heartwarming, cathartic and hilarious film anchored by a beautiful visual aesthetic and stellar performances. While the more simple, unwaveringly cheerful Christmas staples are lovely, this film's immensely moving examination of the more painful aspects of the holiday season is refreshingly honest and exceptionally entertaining.