Arts movie review

The Holdovers is this year’s best film, full of exquisitely rich coming-of-age Northeastern hygge

A nostalgic holiday film that’s a wonderful, deceptively complex story of bridging gaps and bringing down personal barriers set against beautiful snowy Massachusetts

The Holdovers 
Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by David Hemingson
Starring Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
R. In theaters everywhere.

I'll show my hand straight out of the gate: I think Alexander Payne is one of the greatest working directors today. Election's biting political satire, Sideways' bittersweet midlife crisis bro comedy, The Descendants' crushing family dramedy on a gorgeous Hawaiian backdrop, Nebraska's slice-of-life Midwestern humor — Payne has proven time and time again that his eye for set design, ear for dialogue, and heart for empathetic but challenged characters are some of the best in the business. 

These skills were sadly put on the shelf for the better part of the last ten years after Payne's singular misstep, Downsizing, flopped both critically and in the box office. Payne spent time after the release being a new father, getting a Greek citizenship, and toying with some projects that didn't get off the ground. 

With The Holdovers, out in theaters late October and since enjoying a very successful limited release (expanding from six theaters in its opening weekend to almost 1,500 four weeks later, after Thanksgiving), I can confidently say Payne is back at the top of his form, working with the same eye, ear, and heart that makes his films so special. And this time, it comes with a heaping dose of hygge, the Danish term for a feeling of warm conviviality, that works extremely well as winter arrives in Cambridge.

The film follows Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly Classics professor at a fictional New England all-boys prep school in 1970. He's cruel and overbearing to his students — whom he views as spoiled and incompetent — and difficult and uncompromising with his fellow teachers. Unsurprisingly, he's also unmarried and lives alone on the school grounds, which gives the academy’s leadership justification for making him responsible for "holding over" during the Christmas break. While all the other faculty and staff take vacation, students that can't go home are housed on campus, left under Hunham's militaristic, Spartan care for the two-week holiday.

Initially, bonding among the holdovers and classic students-versus-teacher comedy ensues, but soon a fortuitous ski trip saves all the holdover students but one. Hunham, ever-vigilant and calling to get permission for all the students to ski, is unable to reach the parents of Angus Tully, a precocious and surly student who's arrived at Barton Academy by way of multiple expulsions at other schools and significant family trauma (that, we later learn, further plays into his parents’ unreachability). Thus, Hunham and Angus are stuck at Barton together, along with cafeteria manager Mary, for the rest of the holiday.

What follows is a wonderful, deceptively complex story of bridging gaps and bringing down personal barriers, fostering empathy across differences and how children and adults alike can mature in their own ways. David Hemingson's script (originally inspired by Payne's viewing of a 1935 French film with a similar basic plot) is brilliantly paced, whip-smart without ever being too haughty. Quotes and references to the great works of Western civilization are used by Hunham as weapons against a world that he feels left out of; overwrought responses from Angus are clever but reflect similar insecurities. Mary's simple insights balance out the annoyingness of her two counterparts. Classic script touchpoints, such as a hospital visit, a chosen family Christmas Day, a first kiss, and a climactic parent-teacher conference are all familiar yet fresh. Themes that Payne has explored before, such as youth and aging, wealth and poverty, and personal growth, reappear but with even greater depth.

Moreover, all three lead performances really bring Hemingson’s script to life. Paul Giamatti is superb as lazy-eyed Hunham, with an awkward and cold exterior poorly hiding a warm center; Da'Vine Joy Randolph is terrific as Mary, taking what could have been a stereotyped role and infusing deep humanity; newcomer Dominic Sessa is captivating in his first film role, balancing a youthful tomfoolery with a deeper wisdom. Other performances all flesh out the story, like a potential love interest (Carrie Preston), a friendly janitor (Naheem Garcia), a frustrated principal (Andrew Garman), and a host of other privileged prep-school boys (Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost). Each actor is so well-cast and talented that their world feels real, and even upon a rewatch I loved taking the journey with each of them.

Beyond the story and acting, Payne and team deliver on an unbelievably rich, beautiful, complex backdrop of Barton Academy, its community, and the broader state of Massachusetts. I was lucky enough to first watch the film in a theater in Boston Commons (which is featured prominently in the film) and was coincidentally  joined in the audience by an alumni group from Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH), one of the prep schools used as a filming location. Audience cheers for exteriors of downtown Boston and NMH alike were particularly loud as a result, but really well-deserved: the movie is stunning, with deep whites for snowy days, warm ambers and browns for library interiors, and bright rainbows for holiday parties and bars.

Accompanying the picturesque and exacting set design (all on location across five real Massachusetts schools and their communities and shot beautifully by cinematographer Eigil Bryld) is an equally precise soundtrack from Mark Orton, who also composed the score for Nebraska in 2013. Its strings pluck over snowy countrysides and add a quiet beauty to scenes; new compositions are matched by perfectly-selected songs and Christmas carols from Beethoven, The Temptations, Chet Baker, and Cat Stevens, among others.

A return to peak form for Payne, a terrific star turn introduction for Dominic Sessa, and a strong Oscar contender for hopefully every category, The Holdovers brings laughs and tears in equal measure, and is the perfect film to celebrate autumn and welcome winter.