Philadelphia Film Fest Exclusive Review: The Holdovers is a New Must-Watch During the Holiday Season

Review of The Holdovers


Alexander Payne’s films have always been known for their biting satirical commentary and unmatched comedic timing. Now he’s bringing a handful of heart home for the holidays to mesmerize audiences with The Holderovers.

Set against a Wintery New England backdrop in the 1970s, The Holdovers follows the story of a cynical but committed teacher, a troubled but intelligent student, and a tough but grieving cafeteria worker as they spend the holiday break “holding over” on campus at Barton Academy. In other words, they have no one but each other.

The film stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, the cantankerous, Roman-Empire-obsessed history teacher, and outstanding newcomer Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully, the rebellious melancholic student who is forced into the unexpected company of Mr. Hunham when his mother ventures away with her new husband over the holiday. 

Completing the turbulent trio is Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb, one of the academy’s cafeteria workers mourning the loss of her son in the Vietnam War and choosing to stay on the memory-tainted campus for the holidays.

Together, through home-cooked meals, an awkward Christmas party, and The Newlywed Game, the three form an inseparable bond as the film explores togetherness and heartbreak in a familiar but resonant way.

Payne’s direction is impeccable as the characters navigate the spaces they occupy trepidatiously and daringly throughout various explosive arguments, soul-bearing confessions, and newfound connections with each other.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld delivers the gleaming isolation of snowy forests, the warm roughness of Boston restaurants and dive bars, and the desolate empty hallways of Barton Academy through intricate compositions that evoke feelings of both home and unfamiliarity.

The film being set during the holiday season designates it a fresh Christmas classic for generations to come with plenty of cheery and woeful Christmas tunes that perfectly emulate the desired tone.

Not a single performance is dull even though the characters aren’t particularly inventive in their emotional archetypes. The introduction of Dominic Sessa is monumental and essential to the film’s effectiveness.

The Emmy-award-winning Paul Giamatti balances between a sarcastic, hateable history professor, and a lonely, socially awkward man unconsciously vying for relationships he’s convinced he doesn’t need.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, known for her musical accolades, shares an intimate performance of a strong woman slowly receding into vulnerability, illustrating the necessity of support during times of grief. Her humorous candor is also integral to her character and makes for some great scenes, especially between her and Giamatti. 

Emotional beats are at times cliche but none contrived as these characters orbit around each other with authenticity whether hostile or heartfelt. Chemistry is radiant throughout the film not just between the three main characters but in every interaction. 

The setting never goes unutilized as it feels like it was plucked right out of the 70s in part due to the revamping of the studio logos at the beginning of the film and the vibrant pops of color of Christmas lights and living room-like lounges spliced between barren grey/white dorms and hallways. The wardrobe, beautifully designed by Wendy Chuck, also contributes to the blissful nostalgia.

Writer/producer David Hemingson’s screenplay is filled with wit and charm while still remaining wholesome and heart-wrenching throughout. Hemingson’s sitcom writing roots serve as a perfect foundation for the film’s comedic presence. It’s even more admirable when considering that this is the first theatrically released film Hemingson has written for.

We’ve seen the sworn enemies turned dynamic duo in a number of films but Giamatti and Sessa play off of each other effortlessly whether screaming at each other, quipping back and forth, or on the verge of tears. 

Even when we can see the direction our characters are heading for, we continue to root for them and crave more glimpses into their ordinary but captivating lives. By the time the credits roll, you’ll find yourself wanting just a little more time with our protagonists. 

The entire film just feels like biting into a Christmas cookie that tastes like sitting by a brick fireplace and watching the snow fall, though there is a certainty that some viewers will leave the theater teary-eyed. The holidays remain an especially sensitive time for a lot of us and The Holdovers doesn’t shy away from the loneliness that can linger during this season. 

Overall, the film details the heartbreaks, connections, and joys in both the large and little moments in life that remind us of our importance to each other. Whether a celebrator or a stickler during the holidays, The Holdovers portrays a simplistic but wide-ranging emotional story that will find a way to speak to every audience member watching.