THE HOLDOVERS (Middleburg FF 2023) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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The Holdovers, aka Grumpy Professor has a Change of Heart (that’s not a spoiler. It’s telegraphed in the trailer) aka Sideways Part Deux is more charming, poignant and sweet than director Alexander Payne and lead Paul Giamatti have any right to be, but that’s no surprise for the duo that brought us Sideways. It may be the holiday movie you never knew you needed.

Giamatti is Paul Huhham, an adjunct professor and total ancient history geek at Barton Academy, a New England boarding school in 1970. He is actively disliked by the students, his fellow professors, and the principal. His only positive interactions are with practical and sanguine cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (the wonderful Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is the grieving son and recent Barton graduate, Curtis, a recent casualty in Vietnam. Through some underhanded manipulations of the holiday schedule, Paul winds up with babysitting duties, watching the kids who are staying at school through the Christmas holiday. Five kids are whittled down to one, and it becomes just junior Angus (Dominic Sessa), and Paul spending two weeks over Christmas and New Years at the snowy grounds and empty buildings of Barton. Mary is a holdover too, by choice. It was the last place she saw her son.

The movie is based, in part, on 1935 French film Merlusse, and is written by David Hemingson, who had originally written a pilot for a show based in a boarding school, circa 1980. Payne, however, wanted to examine loss in a way that made 1970, an era in which boys were dying in droves in Vietnam, a better fit. None of the lead characters, Paul, Angus, or Mary, have family that make them feel safe and loved during the holidays. This is the story of them finding each other, as damaged and full of baggage as they all are.

What makes the film work is how different each of the three main characters are, often prickly and unreachable in their own ways, engagingly performed by each actor. Mary is by far the most sympathetic and likable of the three, with Angus and Paul less so, but all three are heavily armored in very different ways, and if viewers watch carefully, they’ll see as each crack in that armor happens. That requires skill and communication, beat by beat, between the performers. Both of Paul Giamatti’s parents were teachers, and his dad served as president of Yale University, so he had a lot of inspiration for his role, but I have a feeling he would have found a way into his character regardless. Da’Vine has incredible presence, as her character must have, and it’s a joy to see the other leads giving themselves over to that powerful presence in the scenes between them.

Though I saw the film at Middleburg Film Festival in October, when I have Halloween in my mind and horror films dominate my viewing, the date for wide release is November 10th. I’ll definitely be watching it again as the holidays approach. It fills a void in the holiday film genre, because it isn’t just about the joy of the holidays, it’s about chosen family, grief, and finding a way through it. Beautiful and bittersweet, The Holdovers will resonate with lots of movie lovers who can relate to that.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.