Alexander Payne has been accused of looking down on his characters in films like “Election,” “Citizen Ruth,” and “Nebraska.” I’ve often found this criticism a little shallow but understandable, given the goofy personalities dominating those films and the line between finding people entertaining and mocking them. I bring this up because his latest, “The Holdovers,” contains not a scintilla of this element of his career. On the contrary, he loves these people. You can feel it in every frame, every line delivery, and every plot choice. And in an age of increasing cynicism, I think many people will love them too.
Payne bounces back from the disastrous “Downsizing” by reuniting with the star of arguably his most beloved film, “Sideways.” Paul Giamatti gets his richest part in years as Paul Hunham, a brutal professor at the prestigious Barton Academy in the early ‘70s. (Payne joked in his intro that he’s been basically making ‘70s comedies his whole career, so he figured he’d finally set a film then.) Hunham is generally disliked by students and staff, although a colleague named Lydia (Carrie Preston) does make the grumpy old man Christmas cookies. When Hunham isn’t handing out failing grades and assignments over Christmas break, he’s yelling at students for the slightest infractions. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t have much power in his life, so he uses it belligerently, leaving him few friends.
Every holiday break, a few kids have to stay over instead of going home, which requires a lonely man like Paul to keep an eye on them, even assigning schoolwork because that’s really all he knows to do. Through a series of events, the holdovers this break end up being pretty much just Paul, a student named Angus (Dominic Sessa in a breakout role), and the head cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). They’re three people at very distinct chapter breaks in their lives, but they will influence each other in a heartwarming and genuine way. David Hemingson’s script is about those wonderful turns in our lives when a stranger can shift us off in a new direction that we hadn’t considered and how they can come long after we think we’re done adjusting. It’s got some undeniable clichés, but Payne and his crew find a way to make the life lessons organic, refusing to build their dramedy on predictable plot twists. After all, this one is about the unpredictability of life.
If Hunham is the reluctant father figure of this trio, Mary is the mother, a grief-stricken woman who has just lost her son in the Vietnam War. Randolph is understated and moving, finding the weight of grief. It just seems harder for her to move through the world. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a kid, but I believe it would make a lot of days like quicksand. On the other side of the table, Angus is a 15-year-old with razor wit but the kind of aggression that comes with uncertainty. His parents don’t want him over the holidays. He’s not sure where he goes after Barton. It could even be to Vietnam. To say that he reaches out to Hunham for guidance would be an exaggeration, but these two initial enemies start to understand one another. Hunham is a man who starts to examine how he got here through the friendship of a young man examining where he’s going.
All of this doesn’t capture how consistently funny “The Holdovers” is from beginning to end. Payne leans into Giamatti’s irascibility in the early scenes in hysterical ways that make it more powerful when those walls start to fall. Randolph doesn’t get many laughs but knows how to nail a punchline when given one. The real stand-out here is Sessa, who starts off a bit one-note but develops alongside the film. This is one of those acting turns wherein it feels like you’re watching a future star. He has the energy of both a leading man and a quirky character actor at the same time. You know, how it felt with ‘70s comedies when charm and relatability were key, and idiosyncrasy wasn’t a crime. Sessa would have been a star then. He will be one now.
Hollywood has a long history of stories of “makeshift families that learn something,” but then why does “The Holdovers” feel so fresh? It’s probably because it’s been so long since one of these stories felt this true. Payne and his team recognize the clichés of this life lesson, but they embed them with truths that will always be timeless. Everyone has that unexpected friendship or even mentorship with someone who forever altered their direction in life. And everyone has that young person who has shocked them out of their stasis, either through revealing what they have become or failed to be. “The Holdovers” is a consistently smart, funny movie about people who are easy to root for and like the ones we know. Its greatest accomplishment is not how easy it is to see yourself in Paul, Angus, or Mary. It’s that you will in all three.
This review was filed from the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “The Holdovers” opens on October 27th.