“The Holdovers” aren’t home for the holidays

Published 1:02 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2023

This week at Tryon Theatre we have the perfect film to build anticipation and appreciation for the impending holidays: “The Holdovers.” This new film from wonderfully poignant director Alexander Payne finds him working once again with his greatest muse, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti leads this film as a cantankerous curmudgeon, with a deep and sensitive underlying humanity, the kind of character that Giamatti was born to play. 

This film is a rare treat in the scope of holiday films, never sacrificing depth for sentiment. Similar to another great holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life” (Capra 1946), “The Holdovers” is a film that successfully combines an artistic and emotional complexity with the expected depiction of holiday aesthetics and traditions.

The titular holdovers are the students and faculty at an elite boarding school that remain on campus over the holidays; the faculty chaperoning the students who, for various reasons, have been left at school for the season. This particular December of 1970,  Paul (Paul Giamatti), an instructor, has been saddled with the responsibility of Angus (Dominic Sessa), an intelligent but burdensome student, one prone to performative acting out. Along with the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randoph), this teacher and student form an unlikely trio of begrudging friendship and surprisingly compassionate support. All three individual characters are burdened with a different personal pain of loneliness; a feeling terribly exacerbated by the holiday season. 

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The film gives progressively increasing insight into each character’s background and internal state, weaving a beautifully heartfelt story of loss and perseverance as these three share in navigating the Christmas holiday. 

As a period piece, “The Holdovers” is richly and delicately composed, with both the scenery and the cinematography echoing the era in gorgeous detail. Payne, as director, has carefully constructed a physical world of the 1970 that allows the time period to truly feel authentic. The post-production of the film and the camera movement are in direct and loving homage to 1970s films. The film’s narrative is heavily informed by certain geo-political and social elements of 1970. 

This film depicts holiday cheer, but more so than that, it depicts our characters’ isolation from that cheer, an outward perspective on the happiness of the Christmas holiday. But, the narrative of the film is largely focused on the central trio finding a makeshift family despite their isolation at the plot’s inception. So while “The Holdovers” does depict a great sadness to the larger existential loneliness of its characters, it also celebrates the respite that a family for the holidays can give from said characters’ respective realities. And hopefully, in celebrating that respite, “The Holdovers” can inspire its audience to better appreciate and celebrate the family that they do have for the holidays, whether of friends or relatives, temporary or permanent. 

We hope you will share with us a celebration of the holidays, and a celebration of those with whom we spend them, in “The Holdovers.”