The Holdovers (Alexander Payne, 2023, USA)

The Holdovers, Alexander Payne's latest, is a cozy Christmas dramedy set in the 1970s. Originally conceived of as a pilot for a TV show, the film owes a great debt to films of the 1970s, not only in its subject matter but also in its visual style. From the opening 70s MPAA rating block to the film's grainy visual style, it feels like something Hal Ashby might have made during the period of Harold and Maude. Paul Giamatti, playing a strict professor named Paul Hunham at a New England boarding school, is also the kind of character actor who feels right out of that decade. 

Giamatti's performance is anchored by two others. Newcomer Angus Tully, played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, plays a troubled student that Paul is forced to watch over during the holiday break. Da'Vine Joy Randolph Mary Lamb, the cafeteria administrator is grieving the death of her son in the Vietnam War. While The Holdovers deals with sad and heavy themes, it is a surprisingly warm and light film. It manages to address serious topics without treading into sentimentality and melodrama. While some have claimed that Payne has lost some of his bite over the years, that is to be expected. The film is arguably his best since Sideways and a return to form.

In an era of spectacle, The Holdovers is a return to the kind of intimate, performance-driven films of an older era. The fact of its success should be hope that more such films will get made. If the film is not entirely original, then its familiarity lends a deep sense of comfort and watchability. Sessa is a revelation, and Giamatti is great as always. One of the best films of the year precisely because it does not try to go for emotional gut punches.



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