What You Need to Know About the Movie “The Holdovers”

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a grumpy, unpopular teacher; Angus (Dominic Sessa), a bright, stubborn student; and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head chef and recently bereaved mother, are forced to spend winter break together in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet throwback to classic 1970s American cinema.

Don’t approach The Holdovers as a cozy movie blanket. Beneath the surface layer of melancholic humor lies a sharp, painful sadness that occasionally drifts into sentimentality. It is this shared experience of being let down by life, as well as the fact that they have to spend the Christmas holiday together, that bonds the characters in The Holdovers, helping them tune into the unique frequencies of each other’s pain.

Paul has more or less accepted the fact that he is disliked by both students and his fellow teachers, and has built a wall of books and thorny insults to hide behind. Angus, who was suffering from the absence of his father in his life, was deeply hurt by his last-minute withdrawal from a promised holiday to Saint Kitts with his mother and her new husband. But Mary’s plight is the crudest; Randolph brilliantly captures the tired dignity of her character’s slow, painfully deliberate movements (she’s a best supporting actress winner at this year’s Golden Globes and an Oscar nominee).

In order for her son to go to school, Mary took on the job of cooking for privileged rich children who looked down on her because of her race and class. But while his graduating classmates were off to college, his son was forced to serve in the military and was killed in Vietnam. Now every day at work reminds her of what she’s lost, and the thought of her first Christmas without her child is paralyzing. It’s no wonder he soothes his sorrows with bourbon every night.

This is Payne’s first film; The story unfolds in late 1970 and early 1971. It fully embraces the era, with a retro feel that extends to the use of vintage production logos in the film’s design and look. The distinctive spirit of ’70s American cinema and its distinctive character-driven filmmaking is especially evident in writer David Hemingson’s sharp, sophisticated script.

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