Alexander Payne has had an acclaimed career with highlights including Election, Nebraska and About Schmidt, and adapted screenplay Oscar wins for Sideways and The Descendants. His latest film The Holdovers has earned a rave reception on the festival circuit and reunites him with Sideways’ lead Paul Giamatti. The question many might have is: can lightning strike twice for this collaboration? The answer is an emphatic yes.
We follow Giamatti’s Paul Hunham, a disgruntled and unpopular teacher at the prestigious Barton Academy in the early 1970s. Hunham is tasked with looking after students forced to stay behind for the Christmas holidays, lending the film its titular “holdovers”. Initially abrasive Paul is forced to interact with Angus Tilly (Dominic Sessa), a troublemaking student on the verge of being kicked out of the academy and sent to military school.
What follows is an odd-couple-style blend of comedy and drama. This melding of the two is something Payne has become a master at over the years, especially in Sideways and The Descendants, finding laughs even in the bleakest of moments but never letting the drama out of a situation. Here is no different. As with Miles in Sideways, Giamatti is on top form with Paul, a sarcastic and reclusive figure rarely straying from the grounds of the school, brilliantly nailing his comedic lines with pitch-perfect timing, while really lending himself to the weightier moments.
It would certainly be no surprise to see him nominated come awards season, along with Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb the school’s cook who has recently lost her son in the Vietnam war. Known for her comedic performances, Randolph more than holds her own against Giamatti, showing Lamb’s vulnerability and grief while delivering one-liners aplenty and having superb chemistry with the rest of the cast.
David Hemingson’s script is one of the key ingredients to making the somewhat disparate threads work and the balance between pathos and comedy so effective. It is one of the year’s best screenplays, brilliantly written and complementing the superb cast and the cold, austere winter environment that surrounds the school.
There are clear influences from the films of the 1970s, with the works of Hal Ashby coming to mind, especially Harold & Maude, through the connective tissue of Cat Steven’s music. With the school setting and the central relationship between student and pupil, the feature can’t help but recall Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society as well.
The Holdovers is a successful return for Payne after the lukewarm reception to Downsizing that may well see him return to the awards conversation in several categories. It’s a warm, funny and tender exploration of grief, which makes the most of its early 70s setting, and with its festive backdrop, may well become a future Christmas favourite – although frustratingly the UK release is set for January. This is certainly not one to miss.
The Holdovers is released nationwide on 19th January 2024.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for The Holdovers here: