TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Holdovers’ is pure magic

Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Holdovers, is a beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant piece that delves into themes of connection, redemption, and the transformative power of unexpected relationships. Set against the backdrop of a wintry New England boarding school during the holiday season, this film features strong performances, a poignant narrative, and Payne’s characteristic blend of humour and heart. The Holdovers stands out as a poignant and uplifting story that captivates from beginning to end. In other words, it’s pure magic.

The film centres on the unlikely trio of Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly history teacher played by Paul Giamatti; Angus Tully, a troubled student portrayed by Dominic Sessa; and Mary Lamb, the school’s head cook, brought to life by the award-worthy Da’Vine Joy Randolph. When the school closes for the Christmas break, Paul, Angus, and Mary find themselves among the few left behind. Through their interactions, they embark on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and unexpected friendship.

Giamatti delivers a masterful performance as Paul Hunham. His portrayal of the gruff, no-nonsense teacher is layered with subtlety and depth. Giamatti excels at conveying Paul’s internal struggles and past regrets, gradually revealing the character’s vulnerability and humanity. His performance is both humorous and touching, perfectly capturing the film’s delicate balance between comedy and drama. Giamatti’s chemistry with his co-stars is palpable, adding a rich dynamic to the film’s core relationships.

Sessa’s portrayal of Angus Tully is equally impressive. As a young actor, Sessa brings a raw authenticity to the role, effectively capturing Angus’s angst and disconnection. Throughout the film, Angus undergoes significant character development, transitioning from a sullen, rebellious teenager to a more introspective and understanding young man. In one of the best acting debuts of recent times, Sessa’s nuanced performance makes this transformation believable and compelling. His interactions with Giamatti’s character are particularly memorable, as they evolve from mutual disdain to a deep, albeit unconventional, bond.

But it’s Randolph who really steals this one in a sublime performance destined for much love this awards season and maybe even an Oscar. Randolph shines as Mary Lamb, infusing her character with warmth, resilience, and quiet strength. Mary serves as the emotional anchor of the trio, providing much-needed compassion and stability. Randolph’s performance is heartfelt and genuine, capturing the nuances of a character who is grappling with her own loss while caring for others. Her scenes with Giamatti and Sessa are some of the film’s most touching, highlighting the power of empathy and understanding.

Payne’s direction is typically impeccable, showcasing his talent for storytelling that is both character-driven and thematically rich. Payne’s ability to create a sense of place and atmosphere is evident in the film’s setting, which becomes almost a character in itself. The wintry landscape of the boarding school, beautifully captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, enhances the film’s mood and underscores the themes of isolation and connection.

David Hemingson‘s screenplay is sharp, witty, and poignant. The dialogue is natural and engaging, effectively revealing character and advancing the plot. The film’s humour is well-timed and understated, providing moments of levity without undermining the emotional weight of the story. Hemingson’s writing explores complex themes with sensitivity and insight, making The Holdovers a thought-provoking and emotionally resonant experience.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its exploration of the characters’ emotional journeys. Each of the central characters is dealing with their own form of grief and loneliness, and the film sensitively portrays their struggles and growth. Paul is haunted by his past mistakes and the distance between him and his family. Angus is grappling with the recent death of his father and the feeling of being unwanted. Mary is mourning the loss of her son and trying to find purpose in her life. Through their interactions, they help each other find healing and a sense of belonging.

The film’s pacing is deliberate, allowing the characters and their relationships to develop organically. This approach gives the story a sense of authenticity and depth, inviting the audience to become fully invested in the characters’ journeys. The gradual revelation of backstories and the unfolding of the character’s inner lives create a rich, immersive experience.

The cinematography by Eigil Bryld is visually stunning, capturing the stark beauty of the winter landscape and the intimate moments between characters. The use of light and shadow is particularly effective in conveying the film’s emotional tone. The cold, snowy exterior contrasts with the warmth and intimacy of the indoor scenes, reinforcing the themes of isolation and connection.

The Holdovers is a film that resonates on multiple levels, offering a deeply human story that is both heartwarming and thought-provoking. It’s a testament to the power of connection and the capacity for growth and change, even in the most unlikely circumstances. The film’s humour, heart, and humanity make it a standout in Payne’s already impressive body of work and one you’re likely going to hear a lot about once those awards nominations start rolling in.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da ‘Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Andrew Garman, Tate Donovan, Gillian Yigman
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Mark Johnson, Bill Block, David Hemingson
Screenplay: David Hemingson
Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Production Design: Ryan Warren Smith
Costume Design: Wendy Chuck
Music: Mark Orton
Editor: Kevin Tent
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: 11th January 2024 (Australia), 27th October 2023 (US)

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