THE HOLDOVERS (TIFF 2023) – Review by Emma Badame

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Filmmaker Alexander Payne’s latest offering is not particularly original in any of its elements and doesn’t attempt to break any new ground, but as it transpires, that’s not at all a bad thing. Well-acted, lovingly directed, and sharply written by David Hemingson, The Holdovers is a warm, nostalgic hug of a film that harks back to a specific and beloved era of filmmaking.

Paul Giamatti re-teams with his Sideways director in this ‘70s tale of an unlikely bond that develops between an ornery Ancient Civilizations professor, Professor Paul Hunham (Giamatti), and a frustrated 15-year-old student, Angus (Dominic Sessa) when they’re stuck together at an elite New England boarding school over the winter holiday. Though their relationship is initially one of barely tolerated co-existence, their respect for each other grows as does their understanding of their motivations and vulnerabilities. Observing them through their initial antagonism and guiding them through their emotional uncertainty is the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is herself grieving the recent loss of her son in Vietnam.

Professor Hunham loathes the entitlement he sees in cohort after cohort of his young students and resents them after having to work hard to attain his own quality education–and the opportunities it allowed him–despite his less fortunate background. Giamatti mines every moment of glee the Professor feels in doling out punishment and hard lessons to his layabout students, aware of his negative reputation but firm in his belief that fairness is far more important than likeability. When he’s not terrorizing the teens, Paul prefers his own company and can be found with his books and an ever-present glass of Jim Beam.

Angus’s privilege hasn’t protected him from trauma and resentment of his very own, and though he’d love to drown himself in Miller High Life (the “Champagne of Beers”), his more accessible vices are nicotine and sass. Sessa nails the awkward emotional hinterland of a disgruntled teen abandoned by his family, desperate for any kind of meaningful connection.

As would be expected, the lion’s share of the film is focused on the three characters slowly but surely gaining each other’s trust and understanding. As they peel back the layers, they find the commonalities that allow them to form memorable and supportive, if temporary, relationships with each other. Each beat is predictable but that’s a part of The Holdover’s appeal. Everything feels comfortably familiar, like putting on a cozy Christmas sweater or revisiting your childhood home.

Biting in its wit and gentle in its exploration of love and loss, Hemingson’s script also delves pointedly into the great class divide between Barton’s staff and students. The main cast handles each element expertly, balancing the finely-tuned humor and melancholy equally well. Both Giamatti and Sessa deliver perfectly calibrated performances, but it’s Randolph who provides the heart of the film. Her grief at the loss of her son is painfully tangible and puts everyone else’s troubles in stark perspective.

Aesthetic is a big part of The Holdovers, too. Though the narrative recalls Dead Poets Society and similar stories, Payne sets the film in the early ‘70s to allow for a showcase of his vintage favorites. From the soundtrack to the color palette, he immerses his film in everything of the era and it truly works in the film’s favor.

But like a Christmas holiday itself, The Holdovers rolls on a touch too long. That said, it’s hard to begrudge any film for overstaying its welcome when you spend it with such entertaining and well-rounded characters. Payne’s films aren’t always for everyone but this one just might be his most accessible in quite some time.

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Emma Badame

Aside from garnering for herself a one-time Jeopardy win, Toronto-based Emma Badame has parlayed her passion for film into a life-long career. Her work has been featured on Billboard.com, eTalk, The Mary Sue, Cineplex, CTV's PopLife, The Canadian Press and more. She is also a programmer with the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival.