Film Review: The Holdovers

Words: Narzra Ahmed
Tuesday 23 January 2024
reading time: min, words

A grouchy teacher and a rebellious teen have to make the best of a bad situation when they are forced to spend Christmas alone at their prestigious boarding school...

Vf1123 The Holdovers 005

Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
Run time: 133 minutes


The Holdovers might be a Christmas film that ever so slightly missed the festivities in the UK with a January release date, but it is so good and heartwarming that it doesn’t even matter.


Mr Hunham (Paul Giamatti) doesn’t seem to like his students very much. In fact, he appears to have contempt for them, especially when we first meet him and he is marking papers in his home in the fictional Barton Boys’ school (in 1970), muttering under his breath: “rancid little philistines” and later going on to call his pupils, “entitled little degenerates” so it is an odd choice that he is the teacher later chosen to take care of the children who have nowhere to go over the Christmas break. It is actually more of a punishment for him as he has displeased the principal by failing a student who had influential parents. 

In an unlucky turn for teenager Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), he ends up being the only student held back over the Christmas break where the unlikable Hunham insists on keeping to the school schedule, sleeping in the Infirmary and even suggesting Tully will thank him when he is ahead next term. Not exactly a fun-filled Christmas break! It’s not that Tully isn’t bright. He is. But he has a sharp tongue and a rebellious streak and can’t help but get himself into trouble. “This is the most bullshit ever,” he grumbles while trudging through the snow, having previously planned to have been on holiday in Saint Kitts over Christmas.

The Holdovers really packs a dramatic punch when it wants to

It’s safe to say their personalities clash, which leads to some laughs, but this film is more of a slow burner and there is plenty of drama too as you witness the pair bond and take notes of one another’s redeeming qualities. Things are pretty quiet (read: dull) for Tully during the first half of the break, but then the hijinks start; it is then that they form an understanding and even a friendship. 

Meanwhile, they are joined by Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s cook, who is also a grieving mother. Her son had gone to Barton on a scholarship and was killed serving in Vietnam. She is grieving among the backdrop of a place filled with privilege, and a place where students can go to college and never have to worry about serving in the military and risking their lives in Vietnam. Randolph’s performance is excellent and heartfelt. It is also a nuanced performance: gentle whilst speaking volumes - especially as her younger sister is pregnant and decides to give her baby the middle name ‘Curtis’ (Mary’s son’s name) if it is a boy.

Paul Giammati is excellent too. He has previously worked with director Alexander Payne on the hit, Sideways, and it seems they have struck gold again with their collaboration. Light-hearted and slow-paced for the most part, The Holdovers really packs a dramatic punch when it wants to. A must see.

The Holdovers is now screening at Broadway Cinema.

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