Paul Giamatti Is a Delightful Payne in 'The Holdovers'

Directed by Alexander Payne

Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Michael Provost, Jim Kaplan, Ian Dolley, Naheem Garcia

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 3, 2023

There was a lot of hype about The Holdovers coming out of the Venice Film Festival, especially for Paul Giamatti's performance as the curmudgeonly Professor Hunham — and, as is not always the case, it's all richly deserved. In arguably his best film in well over a decade, director Alexander Payne gifts us with a fresh holiday movie that feels light on its feet in spite of its heavier moments and subject matter.

Every year, a group of students are inevitably "held over" for Christmas break at Barton Academy, an elite all-boys boarding school. This year, Professor Hunham has drawn the short straw (though not entirely accidentally) to look after these students. Initially a group of five, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is eventually the last pupil standing when Hunham is unable to contact Angus's parents to obtain their consent in allowing him to join his classmates on a ski trip.

Along with Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the manager of the school's kitchen, Professor Hunham and Angus are stuck spending the holidays together. Despite their previous disdain for one another, Hunham and Angus eventually bond with Mary's help.

The Holdovers considers the sage advice that, since we don't know what others are going through, kindness should be our default. While this may sound like the beginning of a Christmas film dripping in saccharine lessons, rest assured that David Hemingson's script roars with laughter of all sorts. Delivering the comedy are Giamatti and Randolph turning in hilarious and heartfelt performances, but it's newcomer Sessa who creates the most exciting buzz. 

In his debut film, Sessa exhibits the frenetic qualities of a teenager with abandon. His outbursts are as raw as his tender moments are innocent, balancing Angus's vulnerability and inexperience with a pent-up frustration we can all empathize with. Sessa's performance embodies the idea of organized chaos — it's controlled spontaneity. 

The Holdovers feels like a movie out of our time, and not just because of the '70s setting. It embraces the mid-budget film ideal of the '90s, where simple and earnest stories could be told and meaningful connections between audience and character are earned without sacrificing raucous humour.
(Focus Features)

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