The Holdovers: An Instant Coming-of-Age Classic
The Holdovers is a new film directed by Alexander Payne set in a prestigious New England boarding school in 1970. Starring Paul Giamatti and newcomer Dominic Sessa, the film follows the animus and eventual friendship of an unlikely duo – cranky history teacher Paul Hunham and his short-tempered pupil Angus Tully – who are forced to spend Christmas break together.
Payne draws inspiration from director Hal Ashby and aims to emulate the films of the 1970s with a retro-stylized aesthetic. However, the film’s style and spirit are actually reminiscent of 80s classics by John Hughes. Despite its familiar premise, The Holdovers stands out as a meaningful drama and character-centric comedy, slowly revealing the layers of its lead characters.
The Setting and Characters
The film brilliantly captures the essence of Barton Academy, a prestigious Christian prep school, with a Wes Anderson-like imagination and idiosyncrasy. The snow-capped buildings are ethereal, giving the impression of a place out of time. The teenage students, including the bold and foul-mouthed Angus, engage in normal teenage banter, but there is a wistfulness to these scenes, underscored by folky guitar-plucking.
Professor Paul Hunham, played by Giamatti, is introduced in stark contrast to the school’s setting. He is portrayed as a condescending and curmudgeonly academic, characterized by his cramped quarters and classical music. His disdain for the privileged students and legacy admissions fuels his snarky comments and strict grading system.
An Unlikely Family
Due to certain circumstances, Angus becomes the only student left in the school during winter break, forcing him to spend time with Hunham and the school’s head cook, Mary. As they spend more time together, they start to feel like a disjointed and dysfunctional family. The film explores their pasts and vulnerabilities, gradually revealing their true selves.
A Mesmerizing Performance
Giamatti delivers a mesmerizing performance as Hunham, capturing the character’s struggles and complexities through dialogue and physicality. His bug-eyed glare and offensive remarks create a musicality in his interactions with Angus, played by Sessa. The comedic timing and physical comedy between the pair adds depth to their characters.
As the characters get to know each other intimately, they provide audiences with a greater understanding of their quirks and emotions. Their relationship evolves from scorn to curiosity and eventually care, leading to a brilliantly balanced dynamic between their egotistical armor and suppressed vulnerabilities.
The Holdovers is an instant coming-of-age classic, offering a thoughtful and entertaining exploration of friendship, family, and personal growth.