The Holdovers | Picturehouse Recommends

Alexander Payne reunites with Paul Giamatti for his funniest and warmest film to date.

Helen O'Hara

16 Jan 24

Alexander Payne

Release Date
19 January


Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa


Running Time
133 mins

With films such as About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska, Alexander Payne is a master at depicting flawed, fascinating men. His latest film, The Holdovers, reunites the director with his Sideways cohort Paul Giamatti and broadens the male-centric focus to deliver a sharp, memorable portrait of a thrown-together, makeshift family.

The result is Payne's funniest and warmest film to date.

It's set in December 1970, when a curmudgeonly teacher of ancient history, Paul Hunham (Giamatti, superb, obviously), is saddled with supervising the boys left behind at his posh boarding school over the Christmas break. Hunham was planning another quiet holiday with his books, but he gamely sets about his unwanted task. Of course, that involves enforcing his usual strict discipline on his charges and squeezing all the fun out of the days off.

That's particularly galling to one of them. Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa) was minutes away from leaving for the Caribbean when his mother called to cancel the trip. Angus has bad blood with both Hunham and another of his classmates, who is also left behind, so he faces a very bleak midwinter indeed.

Perhaps luckily for the two men, there is one other person staying at the school over Christmas – Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Mary Lamb, the head cook. She is facing her first holiday season without her only son, Curtis, who was killed in Vietnam shortly before the story begins. She completes the dysfunctional trio at the heart of this story: a woman who has lost her family; a boy who has been rejected by his; and a man who never managed to make a family of his own.

Over the long, empty days before Christmas, Angus and Hunham clash, bicker and will perhaps begin to see that they have more in common than they ever suspected. Given that it's Payne directing, we can expect a lot of laughs as well as a moving quest for some sort of connection.

On paper, this could be trite or sentimental but the result is the director's speciality – just beautifully realised people. It's a quality picked up on by the rave reviews from its triumphant debut at the Toronto Film Festival.

The idea for the film has been on Payne's mind for years, and he worked with screenwriter David Hemingson to bring it to life. Payne took the unusual step – for him – of bringing on a co-writer after seeing a TV pilot script Hemingson wrote that was also set in a boy's prep school. It was a very different story but it convinced Payne that the writer could help create the film he had in mind.

This is the director's first period film but, as he points out, it may not feel that way even to fans. "In a way, I've been making '70s movies my whole career," the director said. "I focus on what I hope are very human stories, as opposed to stories of device, convention or contrivance. I like having a protagonist and story who approximate real life much more than movie life."
That's certainly the case for this group of characters who are flawed and fascinating and very funny.

Perhaps his is indeed an old-fashioned approach, a type of filmmaking straight from the '70s. However, it feels more accurate to say that this one will feel genuinely timeless.  Helen O'Hara

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