The Reel Review
With the 1970 Christmas break approaching, a grumpy, unlikable history teacher at a boarding school in western Massachusetts is left in charge of the students with no holiday plans who are remaining on campus. The holdovers ultimately end up being just one troubled student, the school’s chain-smoking cafeteria manager and himself. Paul Giamatti, D’Vine Joy Randolph (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) and Dominic Sessa star in this period dramedy about learning to seek happiness amidst personal tragedy.
The Holdovers is both an authentically hilarious and very moving film. It’s three stars have excellent onscreen chemistry and give career-defining, Oscar-worthy performances, with Sessa more than holding his own in his feature film debut. Screenwriter David Hemingson (Whiskey Cavalier, The Catch) packs his characters with genuine heart and sass, with director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, Election) bringing the emotions to life onscreen, as these former strangers change the life trajectories of one another. Carrie Preston (The Good Wife, True Blood) also shines as a fellow teacher with a heart of gold.
Yes, there are some clichés, but even so, The Holdovers is easily one of Payne’s best movies, with enough surprises to maintain anticipation as you root for his relatable, imperfect characters. Even with the terrific vintage 1970s hairstyles, music and pop culture references, the message of The Holdovers transcends place and time, reminding us that some families are not inherited, but chosen.
• In a bit of fiction imitating real life, Dominic Sessa is a 2022 graduate of Deerfield Academy, which, like the film’s fictional Barton Academy, was founded in 1797 and is in western Massachusetts. Sessa was one of 12 students there who were asked to audition for the role of Angus.
• The film’s grainy, gritty look, to give it a vintage 1970 feel, was added in post-production.
• Three of the four times that Alexander Payne has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, so has Martin Scorsese: for 2013’s Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street, for 2011’s The Descendants and Hugo, and for 2004’s Sideways and The Aviator. Neither won those years. Payne has won two Oscars (The Descendants, Sideways) for screenwriting. Scorsese has one, for Best Director for 2006’s The Departed.