Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by David Hemingson
I believe it is very possible to overrate The Holdovers just for being such a seemingly rare bird in our modern cinematic ecosystem: it is a resolutely small and intimate holiday dramedy that is plainly made for families, without ever in any sense being made for children—it's even rated R, but only for swearing, and the very likely prospect that parents and their teenagers, or even their tweens, are not seeing this together makes me a little sad, because it feels like families with older kids would constitute its most ideal audience—and it executes its modest goals as a sentimental drama and humane comedy with a great simplicity, but in every case richly and well. It is, I am fairly sure, the only new American film I've seen in the last eleven months that has made me cry, at all*, and at one point we'd have agreed as a society that this is one of the key things movies are supposed to be good for.
It is also, I think, possible to overrate it because of what it looks and feels like in pursuit of those goals, and I should be honest enough to admit to my own shallowness about this, given that the promises made by its aesthetic markers (and even a trailer aping the classical form) got me out to the theater for it a whole lot quicker than "a new Alexander Payne movie" would have by itself. So, give or take a year or two in either direction, it's a movie that is set in roughly 1970, that looks like it was shot in 1979, and feels like it was written in 1985, and while this is a deceptively broad array of years for any movie to attempt being a throwback to all of them, it winds up working perfectly on its behalf, laying out a weary cynicism, damaged and broken by the tumult of the 60s and just by the passage of time, Vietnam being a particular big deal but by no means the exclusive reason for our main characters' sorrow, which isn't exactly healed by a Christmastime magic nurtured within the nostalgia of an old-timey cinematographic regime, but is certainly pointed in the direction of healing, by a unique interpersonal experience that only one very special Christmas could have afforded. For my part, I am not presently certain if I'm not underrating it, less out of how there are, in fact, a large number of movies that are like this, which might not be made much anymore but do still exist, and can therefore be seen by whoever wants to see them, and more out of a pure abundance of caution to not overrate it. But I really love it.
I want to dwell a little bit on "the looks like 1979" part, anyway, particularly since "the modal cinematography of 1978-1980" offers perhaps the least appeal of any three consecutive years in modern cinema history (well, prior to 2021-2023, but I wouldn't want to so recklessly jinx 2024-2026), so that the hook of it might have been solely "is it not old? do you not respond to the timeworn and to the lost?" And there isn't nothing to that assessment, though it's shockingly perfect for this story and this setting: I don't even know how Payne managed to pull this out of DP Eigil Bryld, a reasonably talented B-list fellow I have heretofore associated purely with the tasteful side of grim contemporary cinematography (in truth, I have not heretofore "associated" Bryld with anything at all; I had to look him up), but however it happened, Bryld accomplished some best-of-2023-shortlist photography here.
For absolute starters, I was going to write "it's on 35mm but that's just what you'd do," except that it's not, and, two days after the fact, here I am confronted with a "holy shit that's digital?" reaction that really makes me want to overrate this movie, and I pray isn't an embarrassing "of course it's digital, you blind idiot, do you think that's real grain, you cretin" oversight. But to my eye it is stunningly accurate, which may still only get us to nostalgia (like the faux-ancient studio logos and MPAA card, or the unexciting but perfectly-arrayed 70s-folk-grooves-with-room-left-open-for-Artie-Shaw-and-His-Orchestra soundtrack), but more importantly it's stunningly apt: the cheerful openness with which Bryld permits sunlight to blow out backgrounds against the richness of the old-money mahogany browns of the primary setting, and the fun grunginess of some of the location shooting (and location manager Kai Quinlan may be the real MVP of this one, not just for some New England school, the traditionalism of which is baked in, but for some really terrific early 70s streets), honestly does go to create an exterior world that is bleak and depressing and extremely wintry, but offers the possibility of cozy warmth for the world inside the empty halls shared by our principals, alongside a narrative that's of course doing the exact same thing. (It's playing a cute trick, insofar as the primary setting is supposed to be somewhat fundamentally evil; but, even if it's temporary, our characters repurpose it for their own ends.) If there's anything disappointing, it's that the "pictorial essay" part of The Holdovers finds its way into some sublime exterior shots that take fuller advantage of "1979-style cinematography" than any movie from 1979 I can name offhand, with footpaths and trees stranded in snowy white negative space in images that feel like the minimalism of an art-minded comic strip or magazine illustration (a real Calvin & Hobbes look), and these are amazing, so the disappointment is that they're just frequent enough to be noticeable and not frequent enough, or connected enough, to be the movie's "thing."
There is also the story, without which this wouldn't matter very much, and in short, what we have is a series of cliches about friendship and generation-gapped guidance plied with the kind of absolute sincerity that is more surprising than the most successful throwback cinematography: in 197X, there exists in New England the Barton Academy, a prestigious boarding school predominantly for wealthy shitheads. They vary in their shitheadedness: some, like Kountze (Brady Hepner), are complete write-offs; some, like Smith (Michael Provost), seem pretty okay. Somewhere on that scale is year-behind junior Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who will find himself stuck here over the holidays with those two plus a pair of much younger kids, Ollerman (Ian Dolley) and Park (Jim Kaplan), essentially because his parents don't want him: his dad is dead and his mom, now remarried but having put off her honeymoon—at least this is the story—has chosen Christmas to get away with her new husband.
Looking after these five "holdovers" is one of the teachers, Paul Hunham (I assume created with Paul Giamatti explicitly in mind), a smugly pedantic figure who's kind of the exact stereotype of a certain kind of boarding school teacher: a grating know-it-all, sexually ascetic to the point of having returned to a second virginity, in part because he's walleyed and tends to smell not-so-good, but also a borderline-alcoholic in ways that aren't so firmly stressed that you'd assume alcohol, itself, is the problem, as he's mainly soaking in neverending resentment for being an intellectual and professional failure (though not of wealth himself, he's a graduate of Barton and he went to Harvard, so he surely had some greater ambitions than going back to Barton; he wants to write a book about Carthage). He takes this out on his students, but he's sort of likeable nevertheless, on the basis of how we know that, in his very curmudgeonliness, he's one of the last members of the faculty with any integrity left, since his conscription into being the holdovers' Christmas overseer is plainly his punishment for failing an important benefactor's dumbfuck son despite every incentive not to. He is not exceedingly popular, but he does get along well with Barton's cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph; and thankfully "Mary had a little lamb" is not explicitly invoked), and they may get along because they're both very sad; Mary's reason is more concrete, in that her son, one of Barton's few non-white, non-rich students, graduated into the Army, with high hopes for a college education on his return, and died. Pretty shortly into the break, Angus is the only holdover even left. (Everybody else got to go on a fun ski trip with Smith's rich dad, but Angus's parents couldn't be reached.) Angus is really mad, obviously, but with nothing to distract him from the angry, hurting young man before him, it's possible that Paul's heart will grow a size or three, and Angus's too.
Why, it's not only possible, it's downright probable; and if you wanted to call the story a formal exercise the same way you could argue the photography is, it would be to find out if you could build a satisfying narrative out of almost literally no surprises, not even in the strategic sense (feel-good comedies kind of aren't supposed to have surprises), but down to the level of dialogue. The exercise booklet for The Holdovers would feature the following problem: "Angus inquires of his walleyed mentor, 'Which [eye] am I supposed to look at?' One hour of screentime later, Paul points one eye toward Angus, and in response to his question of several days and many vignettish adventures before, he says '________.'" There are revelations between the characters; they're surprised on our behalf, simply because they're isolated jerks and not as prepared to see the humanity in each other as we, in the audience, would have to be, if we're here watching them in the first place. (Indeed, the film kicks off its plot with Paul with a line to the effect, "maybe treat them like human beings for once!", and lo, he does.) Hell, it can be so predictable it can outsmart you: Angus's mom, whom I was prepared to cut a great deal of slack, turns out to be the completely instrumental bitch mom concept she was introduced as. Okay, it did have one thing I would not have predicted in either fine detail or even at all; and this is still rendered predictable a solid couple of minutes before it happens, with resolute deliberateness, by the way Giamatti says the word "graveyard." The movie has been very well-received, yet I've come across some snobby grumblers who complain that that's not like a 70s movie, and dismiss it as empty pastiche. In all its forms, it kind of feels like it's missing the point (sometimes it comes with needless miserablism, sometimes it just wants the story to leave its predetermined rails), because this is the "written in 1985" part, and this is what I like about it.
Whether by accident or design (probably something of both), Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson have built a movie that encompasses that period of fifteen or so years in a sort of film historical journey out of darkness, from a bitter New Hollywood youth picture to a formulaic underdog comedy about stupid uptight deans, even if it still retains, from the former, slightly more consequentiality than the latter would usually bother with. At most, then, I could forward a very mild complaint about the finale—not even the finale, the denouement!—which is maybe the single scene that doesn't quite find in its footing, in its attempt to box up what's pretty objectively a total catastrophe into a heartwarmingly liberating package. The more overriding complaint is that it's mostly funny like a 70s realist comedy is funny, with a certain languor to its dialogue and cutting rhythms, distinct from an 80s ethos (not that it objectively needs to have that attitude, I just happen to like it better) that would dictate shaping its comedy for maximum punchiness. (The "this movie was definitely actually made in 2023" part is that it's 133 minutes long, and I can't say for certain that this affects the pace; there is a vague sensation that it's "too long," but I could think about it for hours and I would have no earthly idea what to cut. If anything, it can feel slightly too curt: while it's not "a problem" as such—the movie very clearly identified itself as being "about Paul and Angus and how they teach one another how to live again"—it kind of seems like it's planting land mines for itself with Mary, who's foregrounded enough to have her whole parallel deal, remaining crucial to the leads' dynamic, but never quite transcending being just the most-important supporting character. There's also the smallest little teen erotic module that I think the movie just straight-up mishandles; maybe this is where we cut, not because it isn't a good scene, and it would only get us two minutes anyhow, but because I have a better memory of my own late teenaged years than is altogether good for my mental health, and I didn't even go to an all-boys' school. This would obsess Angus, instead of flying away into a void where it's never even mentioned again.)
What it is, though, is body-and-soul committed, in all the things I've mentioned, but maybe nowhere moreso than in the persons of Giamatti and Sessa. Giamatti is great, maybe expectedly, maybe more than just expectedly—the physical requirements of the agitated-sadsack role, not just the eye thing but definitely including the eye thing (don't tell me how they did it if it's CGI, please), seem exhausting—but Sessa is a Goddamn discovery, starting with his physicality, very adeptly essaying "gangly teen" (he was 20-ish when this was shot), but also serving as one more, and maybe the most important, way by which this gets tied into 70s and 80s filmmaking; Sessa is a good-looking kid, and charming with screen presence for days, but he's also interesting-looking, angular and gaunt, and credible and sympathetic as a teen prone to acting out, rather than the usual central casting robot lizards we usually get for brunet male leads in youth movies now. (Sessa confirms every negative thing I've ever thought about Timothee Chalamet's actual talent.) I'm not sure quite how to describe this beyond vibes, but he feels like he could be a 70s actor unstuck in time; put-upon everyteen and spiky jerk all at once, the ultimate effect is kind of like if they'd made John Cusack's teen movies before he was old enough to actually be in them, so they went with Sessa in 197X. And Sessa and Giamatti are great together; the movie has numerous overt heartstring-pulling moments, but those parts I mentioned earlier, where I cried, weren't those moments; they were actually in the funnier, happier beats, where I realized ahead of time that this relationship, this rapport that I liked so much, is defined by its impermanence.
Anyway, between them they come up with a superbly fractious odd couple, going through the motions of a "we're not so different" comedy without it ever feeling like the motions, inviting us to laugh, cry, etc.; I said it's funny like a 70s movie, but let me clarify, it's funny like a funny 70s movie. If it is fundamentally a very "safe" movie, even so, it maneuvers itself into uplift with the courage of its conviction that, maybe, life actually is this simple—an abiding belief that making you feel that this is true is, in fact, something movies are supposed to be good for.
*Fine, but I'll never admit to it.