Alexander Payne has made a film set in the 70s that could also have been made in the 70s, from the more gimmicky vintage idents at the start right down to the overall aesthetic, from camera angles to fades to casting choices to film stock. But The Holdovers, which premiered at this year’s Telluride film festival in Colorado before heading to Toronto, is far from pastiche; it’s a sensitively acted and delicately written comedy-drama that has a life all of its own. Not only it does it recall intimate, character-led films of the time, but also the sorts of 90s and noughties Miramax indies that broke out at Sundance and charmed all those who saw them on their route to the Oscars (it was in fact acquired for distribution by the once-illustrious ex-Weinstein company before production).
Its simplicity is one of its many aces, especially after the uncharacteristically convoluted silliness of Payne’s last film, 2017’s high-concept, low-reward escapade Downsizing. He’s on far less precarious ground here, a film closer to Nebraska or The Descendants that makes for a welcome return to the fold.
For only the second time in his career, Payne is working from a script he hasn’t written himself. TV writer David Hemingson makes for an ideal partner, modulating the sweet with the sad without indulging in sentimentality in a way that feels as if Payne did write it. His story of three characters forced to spend Christmas together also has the texture of a great American novel, a world that you can imagine existing in full before the start of the film and carrying on without us for a long time after.
Payne’s Sideways right-hand man, Paul Giamatti, plays Paul, a history teacher with a strict moral compass wrangling rich kids at a well-to-do boarding school, aware that he’s disliked but unafraid to continue his mission to prioritise fairness over financial sway. He’s forced into being a holdover, an adult tasked with overseeing students who have nowhere else to go over the Christmas period, and is lumped with a smart yet rebellious teen, Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa). The pair are left alongside a grieving mother and cafeteria manager, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and the three create an unlikely unit.
Paul is a loner, focused on his job and very little else, constantly aggrieved by school politics and choosing to soak his concerns in Jim Beam while disappearing in pulpy mystery books. Angus has been abandoned at the very last minute by his mother and her new husband, who have demanded a honeymoon over the festive period, and he’s itching to play up. Mary’s son died not long ago after being sent off to fight in Vietnam and she’s facing her first Christmas without him, again choosing whiskey but pairing it with reruns of The Newlywed Game.
The ways in which the trio come together, apart and back together again are far subtler and less conflict- and monologue-driven than they could have been in the hands of a less talented writer. There’s no makeshift family created here, just three lost people finding commonalities at what feels like the end of the world, hunkered down at a snowy New England school as everyone else enjoys what’s allegedly the most wonderful time of the year.
Payne understands that there’s a great sadness to the Christmas period for many people and that’s felt most poignantly by Mary, a deservedly more substantial role for Randolph, an actor who has been impressing on the outskirts since breaking out in 2019’s Dolemite is My Name. She’s excellent here, given far more to do than what she’s usually afforded and gives so much more even during scenes in which she’s working with very little. A shot of her tipsily reminiscing at a Christmas party, thinking of her son as an Artie Shaw record plays, and a brief scene where she unpacks her son’s baby belongings are both shattering, enough to secure her a best supporting actress nomination come next year.
She’s one of three moving parts that move effortlessly together: an A-game Giamatti is convincing as a certain teacher, easily judged from afar but with unseen vulnerabilities close up; and Sessa, a genuine knockout in his first film role, confidently going toe-to-toe with his more experienced co-stars, a believably petulant teen in search of something to moor him. There’s an emotional restraint in both the performances and the film surrounding them, despite the time of the year, and when a light sprinkling of sugar does come in the last act it feels earned. The recent churn of Christmas films, more than ever it seems year by year, has yet to offer us one worth revisiting, but there’s something about The Holdovers and its misty-eyed melancholy that feels worth adding to the rotation.