Review: The Greatness of ‘The Holdovers’ comes down to simplicity

Most movies have “a thing.” There is an essential element or characteristic that makes a particular film greater than others. Scarcely, films excel because of their specific lack of “a thing.” Such is the case with Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers.

Payne’s usual brand of worldly cynicism is on full display, but instead of leaning into that cynicism, Payne’s characters grow more empathetic and understanding. Written by David Hemingson, it’s by far Payne’s sweetest film and shows his growth as a filmmaker. Instead of leaning into the “the world isn’t as great as it used to be” like some of his contemporaries, Payne gives his characters patience and understanding to grow into their best and most fully realized selves.

Set in the early 1970s, Paul Giamatti stars as Paul “Walleye” Hunham, a gruff history teacher at Barton Academy, a high-brow boarding school. While the other teachers understand the politics, Paul has little patience for the ineptitude of the children of powerful men. 

He alienates his colleagues and is punished by being put in charge of the students who can’t return home for the Christmas holidays.

This punishment comes in the form of misanthropic student Angus Tully (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa), who is surprisingly left at school over the holiday so his mother can have a honeymoon with her new husband. A few other students are also in attendance, but they quickly get to go on a skiing excursion, leaving only Paul, Angus, and school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) alone.

The simplicity is the key factor. Paul drinks too much, but his sobriety isn’t the goal. Angus is an underachiever, but his excellence isn’t the goal. Mary is grieving, but her overcoming that grief isn’t the goal. This is not a film about a clear conclusion. It is a film about connection. Instead of the characters changing for the better, these characters discover the goodness in others, which leads to their growth. The empathy and humanity is on full display.

Giamatti again shows why he is one of the premiere stars of Payne’s sensibilities. Yes, he is able to convey intelligence, but there is a balance of self-awareness and stubbornness he is able to push across that few others could. Sessa proves himself to be Giamatti’s equal in presence and command. For someone who has never appeared in a film before, his confidence with the character and trust in Payne is perfectly suited for what The Holdovers needs.

Randolph tries her best to steal the movie away from her male co-stars. Mary could have been a stock-sweet lunch lady. Instead, her grief drives her, even when she wants to think of something else. She is consumed by it, but her interactions with Angus allows her that bit of motherhood she so severely misses. Her characterization could have easily gone awry, but Randolph never allows it to go anywhere close to off the rails.

In The Holdovers, Payne creates the film Hal Ashby never made. Complete with 70s-style opening credits and logos, the vibes of the film are as important as the content. This is an era of generational change and counterculture. Instead of being immersed in this world, the audience is surrounded by an environment actively trying to push back against it. The environment lends as much to the film as the characters.

What makes The Holdovers great? There isn’t a big thing. It’s a combination of cast, director, writer, and setting coming together to tell a story about connection. It doesn’t have to be big. It’s just simple, in the best way.

Score: 4.5/5.0

How to Watch The Holdovers

The Holdovers is now playing in select theaters and opens wide on November 10th. View the trailer below. 

Your thoughts on The Holdovers

What do you think about The Holdovers? Do you have thoughts you want to share? Join the conversation by commenting below or following us on X (formerly known as Twitter) @MoviesWeTexted.

Are you still trying to find something to watch this weekend? Check out our editorial on the new Marvel Spotlight Banner. You could also check out contributor Austin Belzer’s review of the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie or Russell Miller’s thoughts on the new Sofia Coppola film Priscilla.  

Want something more in depth? Read our interview with writer and director Matthew Yerby about The Dirty South, starring Willa Holland, Shane West, and Dermot Mulroney.