The Holdovers Review: Give it Up for Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Director Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated dramedy, starring Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, is now in theatres
The Holdovers Review: Give it Up for Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph
The Holdovers Review: Give it Up for Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa

Writer: David Hemingson

Runtime: 133 minutes

Available in: Theatres

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a history teacher at the prestigious boarding school Barton Academy, finds himself tasked with babysitting five students during the Christmas vacation. “I’m being punished,” Hunham says when asked how he ended up being the one who drew the short straw, and he’s right. Hunham, mocked by other teachers for his lazy eye and idiosyncratic ways, lives on campus and it is well known that his life revolves around the school. This could be a good thing, but Hunham has gone and irritated the principal by failing a student with a powerful father. Consequently, he gets stuck with the “holdovers” — students who remain in school instead of going home to their parents to celebrate Christmas with family. 

Initially, The Holdovers seems like director Alexander Payne’s take on Dead Poets Society (1995), replacing the inspiring effervescence of Robin Williams’ John Keating with the dour grumpiness of Hunham, who doles out some fabulous insults like “you hormonal vulgarian” (this is to a student) and “I have known you since you were a boy, so I think I have the requisite experience and insight to aver that you are and always have been penis cancer in human form” (this is to the current principal of Barton Academy). However, the similarity is superficial and there’s no “Captain o my captain” moment here. Instead, The Holdovers is more like a modern A Christmas Carol, replacing Charles Dickens’s London with the wintry emptiness of New England in the Seventies. The film ultimately settles into a gentle exploration of class, privilege and prejudice, but wrapped in a story about three lonely misfits unexpectedly finding comfort at a time of despairing sadness. 

The tone of The Holdovers changes when four of the students are able to leave and Hunham is left with only one ward: The angsty Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose mother has gone awol after apologising to him for wanting a honeymoon with her new husband rather than an awkward family vacation with him in tow. Payne’s trinity of melancholia is completed by head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is grieving for her son who died in the Vietnam War and dishing out both meals and home truths to her companions. Although she has a loving family and friends, she is isolated by her grief, which we see with painful clarity when Mary goes to a Christmas party. 

The thread that connects Hunham, Angus and Mary is their loneliness — not only are they hiding from the rest of the world, it’s a fact that no one is going to miss them over the holidays. For different reasons, each one has been cast into the margins. In the limbo of the holiday season, in an emptied-out school, these three individuals find each other. It’s true, misery does love company.   

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti as Angus Tully and Paul Hunham in The Holdovers
Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti as Angus Tully and Paul Hunham in The Holdovers

The Trinity of Sadness

Reunited with his Sideways (2004) collaborator, Paul Giamatti is the linchpin holding The Holdovers together. Hunham could easily have felt like a collection of clichés as an ageing, modern-day Scrooge with his haemorrhoid cream, bottles of Jim Beam, and antidepressants, but Giamatti makes him come alive. As Hunham, he doesn’t hesitate to be viciously petty in the early chapters, urging the audience to feel a certain condescension towards the teacher, before earning grace and redemption for a lonely man with a lazy eye. As Hunham opens up to the audience, Giamatti uses every detail of this character to deliver a subtly but scathing critique of social hierarchies and the toxicity of privilege. It helps that David Hemingson’s script gives Giamatti ample opportunities to show that rather than being pathetic, Hunham is a man of pathos. 

Matching Giamatti beat for beat is debutant Sessa, as the troubled and heartbroken Angus who is unmoored by the loss of his father and fearful of what it means to be his father’s son. He shows the fragility of adolescence and shifts with impressive ease between the picaresque tone of his more-playful scenes with Hunham to moments of heartbreaking melancholia. 

Randolph is luminous as Mary, who leans on the stability that comes from monotonous routine — she’s the head cook at Barton Academy — to keep her from crumbling under the weight of the grief of losing a son. Payne brings Mary in at key moments, using Randolph’s expressive eyes to convey everything from irony to delight. As a Black, working class woman, Mary adds a much-needed perspective to The Holdovers. Class and prejudice are important themes for Payne and while Giamatti’s Hunham does a lot of the heavy lifting, Mary emerges as the film’s beating heart. Whether it’s in the way her expression changes when her TV-watching time goes from being a solitary ritual to time shared with Hunham and Tully in silence, or how she shows a mother’s sadness while looking at baby shoes, Randolph is a wonder. 

Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly professor
Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly professor

Balancing Heartbreak and Laughs

The supporting actors are flawless in their roles, adding richness to the snowglobe of a world in which The Holdovers is set. (A snowglobe is, in fact, a key detail in the story, becoming an emblem of love and hope when Angus gives it as a gift, only for this act to terribly backfire on him.) Brady Hepner as delightful as the exasperatingly wealthy Teddy Kountze (one of the many “lazy, vulgar, rancid, Philistines” at Barton). Carrie Preston is the charming Lydia Crane, who is goodness personified. She’s one of the few people to extend kindness to Hunham — the film begins with her giving him a plate of Christmas cookies — and when her sincere affections are revealed to have a layer of pity to them, it stings but you can’t hate her for it. 

Unleavened sadness is unbearable and Payne knows how to use levity as a balancing force. The jokes land just as well as the sucker punches, with Payne divining wonderful moments of comedy and tenderness out of Hemingson’s script. The simple joy of going out for a meal is undercut by the awkwardness that threads through the scene when Mary joins Hunham and Angus at a restaurant, the only visible Black person in the room (no doubt there are Black people among the kitchen staff. After all, Mary is normally relegated to those behind-the-scenes spaces too. It’s in this norm-disrupting holiday season, because of the company of two misfits, that she is in the forefront). A dessert — the cherry jubilee — that is held up as a symbol of snooty, wannabe elitism is reclaimed and transformed to become inclusive and joyous.     

"Adversity builds character," Hunham says early on in The Holdovers, and there’s certainly plenty of adversity in this film. However, what seems to build character is not hardship, but kindness. Ultimately, The Holdovers is about three people who come together, dismissing the conventional barriers that society has erected to keep them apart. They find points of commonality and briefly, become a community for one another. Despite how easy it would be to depict them as mother, father and son, Mary and Hunham are not actually parental figures for Angus. They’re only standing in for a brief moment, holding over for Angus until he’s able to go his own way. 

“You can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?” Mary says to Hunham at one point, and he has nothing to counter her. Yet, by the end of The Holdovers, it seems all three of them might be a step closer to being able to dream and in a world that’s falling apart, that seems like enough of a gift.   

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