TIFF 2023: The Holdovers Review
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: David Hemingson
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph
Runtime: 2 Hour 13 Minutes
Paul Giamatti stars in Alexander Payne’s latest about the bond that forms between a strict professor and a belligerent student he’s stuck supervising over the winter holiday at an elite boarding school.
Barton men don’t lie. This is just one of the many rules Professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti) takes much too seriously as he hands out poor grades at an elite boarding school in 1971. As he dismisses the politics that come along with educating the children of people in high places, he’s punished by the headmaster who gives him a most undesirable assignment for the winter break: to stay at the school and supervise the students who are unable to go home.
Hunham resolves to have the students suffer with him, forcing them to start studying next semester’s curriculum ahead of time. Among them, 15-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa), bright but belligerent, makes a ruckus. Teacher and student become foes, antagonizing one another and tiring themselves out, as Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cafeteria manager, observes from the sidelines, herself alone after recently losing her son in the Vietnam War. As the petulant pair succumb to the depressing truth that they’ve got little else but each other this holiday season, Professor Hunham starts to soften up and they begin to see themselves in one another.
Giamatti gives a career-high performance as the risible teacher who delights in doling out punishment, while newcomer Sessa makes an immediate name for himself, revealing layers of complexity to his character’s rebellious nature. With The Holdovers, director Alexander Payne (Downsizing, TIFF ’17) makes a delicate point about how a first impression never tells the whole truth and shows that the pains and tragedies that feel specific to us actually make us a lot more alike than unalike.
The Holdovers is one of those fun, throwback films that manages to remind us of one of those Christmas films from the 80's (set in the 70's) but still has more modern sensibilities. On the surface, it would look like your typical "Teacher stuck with a rebellious teenage and they bond and learn more about each other as their misadventures go on" but there's a lot more to The Holdovers. This is really a film about the masks people wear to prevent people from getting too close. The way that people sometimes retreat into their own heads in order to not confront those things that really trouble and scare them.
The three main actors/actresses of The Holdovers also form a really great ensemble that plays extremely well off of each other. This is an example of the classic "Don't judge a book by its cover". None of the characters behave how you would think after first meeting them and that also adds to how enjoyable this film is. Paul Giamatti continues to show how he is such a versatile actor who can take on any challenge presented to him. Initially he comes off as just your stereotypical hardass of a teacher that believes in following the rules over everything but as the film goes on you start seeing there's much more to who he is and why he is the way he is. Dominic Sessa plays the spoiled, asshole kid to perfection but also the audience realizes fairly quickly there's a lot more to what is behind his behavior. It's not revealed until much later in the film and when it does, it's absolutely heartbreaking. The true glue that brings this film together is Da'Vine Joy Randolph. Lesser films would have made Mary's character an afterthought and not given her a solid arc. Instead, The Holdovers recognizes her importance to bridging the gap between Hunham and Agnus but also allows her to go on her own journey with grief and loss.
The Holdovers is an enjoyable surprise that will definitely hit the right emotional buttons for the holidays. Listen as Kriss and the crew talk about The Holdovers.
The Holdovers opened wide on October 27th
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