“The Holdovers” – a Premonition of Spring [Review]

The Holdovers movie


Title: “The Holdovers”

Release Date: 2023

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston


Beautiful, warm, touching, funny and on top of that extremely deep – this is how one can describe “The Holdovers”, the latest film by Alexander Payne. This picture, maintained in retro style and atmosphere, is like the taste of aromatic hot tea after returning home on a cold day. One can quietly savor its unhurried, sensitive narrative, which leans with care into the world of each of the characters depicted. No idealizing, easy Hollywood solutions or moralizing remarks. It’s an acceptance of life as it is in its bizarre mix of joy and pain. And in its great longing for the spring that must eventually come.

“The Holdovers” – a beautiful film by Alexander Payne

“The Holdovers”, which has already managed to garner praise from audiences and critics around the world, is a film by Alexander Payne, a two-time Academy Award winner for his screenplays for “Sideways” (2004) and “The Descendants” (2011). It seems to be a sure candidate for an American Academy Award this time, too. The film, set during the winter holidays, already joins the ranks of the great holiday classics, where smiles alternate with tears, and interpersonal relationships, friendship and love come to the fore. However, it must be emphasized that Payne’s latest work certainly does not fit into a tight box of film genres. It is at once an initiatory cinema, educational, social, and even to some extent political and historical. For the numerous references to the Vietnam War taking place in the background of the story presented are not insignificant.

The plot of “The Holdovers” is set in the early 1970s in New England, at one of the prestigious schools for wealthy male youth – Burton Academy. The Christmas break, coveted by all, is approaching, but several students, for various reasons, cannot spend this time with their families. Someone among the teachers, therefore, has to take care of them. This unwanted role falls to the quirky and extremely disliked history professor, Paul Hunham. Together with the head teacher, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), he is to oversee the boys’ safety and free time for two weeks. To their displeasure, the teacher doesn’t give up on education, boring everyone with uninteresting lessons and forcing them to do a lot of chores. However, it soon turns out that the father of one of the students has changed his mind and will take not only his son, but also his classmates for Christmas. Unfortunately, Angus’ mother and stepfather are unavailable, and the boy cannot leave the institution without their consent, so to his own despair he is left alone with Mr. Hunham.

The Holdovers movie review

“The Holdovers” and film reminiscences

Watching “The Holdovers” I saw before my eyes favorite scenes from “Dead Poets Society”, to which Payne’s film undoubtedly refers. The elite men’s school, the story of the teacher and the students, the specific retro atmosphere of the 1960s, similar scenery. The first shots from inside the Burton Academy also reminded me of the touching “The Chorus” But reminiscences from famous films about charismatic professors appear here à rebours. Paul Giamatti playing Hunham in no way resembles Robin Williams. His ambition is by no means to be a mentor showing teenagers the way of life, but to point out their slightest mistakes and scorn their social privilege. Hunham is the anti-teacher and anti-educator, but it is he, nevertheless, who in his own right will prove to be a person who can be trusted to put the welfare of the student entrusted to him above his own.

At this point, one is almost asked to associate with another well-known character from the classics of literature and film – Scrooge from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. But again we have Scrooge in reverse – for it is not Hunham who is the rich man here, although, it turns out, even someone who owns almost nothing can give generously to others. Certainly not coincidental is the arch-funny scene when Paul lugged a meager Christmas tree to Burton on Christmas Eve morning, and then presented Angus and Mary with Christmas gifts – a copy each of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” The situation, which is laughable to tears, has a second bottom, because Hunham’s gift actually has a spiritual dimension. And as such, it will significantly affect the further fate of a teenager entering adulthood and a mature woman in mourning.

“The Holdovers” – a cinema of initiation and transformation

“The Holdovers” is watched with calmness and admiration for the power of a simple story. Modern cinema has long since effectively weaned us from them, operating with quick montages of fragments, fireworks of effects and juggling of emotions. Here, no one rushes anywhere, allowing us to savor almost every scene. The camera films the characters and winter landscapes with remarkable patience, bringing out the charm of a world built from a variety of details. The current of a rushing river, the fresh snow on the road, the sad look of a boy disappointed that he will spend Christmas with strangers – these are images, needing no intrusive commentary. They construct an atmosphere of nostalgia, reflection on the injustice of a world that has become unpleasantly cold and alien.

The Holdovers 2023

Angus (Dominc Sessa) secretly busking at school at night and blissfully devouring ice cream from a big bucket with the face of a several-year-old, Mary exercising undivided power over the tape recorder at the Christmas party or Hunham getting ready to meet Lydia are, in turn, expressions of warming, because the joke is, in fact, what breaks the ice in the relationships between the characters and what makes life bearable, even in the most dramatic circumstances. This is exactly how I perceive “The Holdovers”, as a sincere and unsweetened story about existence, which, despite the fact that, according to Hunham’s words, can be like a ladder in a chicken coop – short and soiled with fecal matter – also has its good and great moments.

Payne’s film continually disarms common stereotypes, including the notion of a carefree, rose-strewn fate of the opulent rich. But perhaps the most important dimension of this picture is the human transformation that can happen at any age and at the least expected time. This metamorphosis, which is also an initiation, is experienced by both Angus and Hunham, a teacher who, despite working in his profession for several decades, has never been a real educator. But it turns out that even in the middle of winter the icy inner landscape can thaw, letting a ray of sunshine pass under the surface, giving hope for the coming of spring. And that’s what “The Holdovers” is for me – a premonition of spring.