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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Reel Thoughts: ‘The Holdovers’ is a heartwarming success

Illustration by Yash Markendey
“The Holdovers” sees Paul Giamatti revivified in a holiday indie hit.

Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” is this holiday season’s first festive hit — and rightfully so.

The film follows a simple story centered around a trio of characters that gradually become an adoptive family while staying, or “holding over,” at a boarding school during winter break.

The “father” of the group is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), an irascible and devilishly well-spoken boarding school teacher with obvious disdain for many of his students. Chief among them is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who is as witty as he is troublesome.

When Tully’s plans change at the last minute, he joins the small group of unlucky students that have to hold over for Christmas and New Year’s. Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) rounds out the central group as a grieving mother and cooks for the holdovers.

The movie reflects its early ‘70s setting through more than the classic grainy lens with which it is shot. The boys pack their “valises” for the winter break, and Hunham’s sardonic disposition is a remnant of old-school teaching practices absent in today’s classrooms. This commitment to accuracy with respect to the time period deserves credit for transporting viewers to an era that isn’t colored by today’s hyperactivity.

The filmmaker builds on this mood from the outset through the lyrics of Damien Jurado’s “Silver Joy:” “Let me sleep in the slumber of the morning / There’s nowhere I need to be and my dreams still are calling.” These opening credits (another vestige of the era) evoke the sense of homeliness a moviegoer feels during the holidays.

Onscreen, on the other hand, Tully, Hunham and Lamb begin their break with no idea of how they might reconcile their differences and enjoy Christmas. This is where the movie’s magic begins.

The best part of “The Holdovers” is the rapport between Tully and Hunham. Giamatti takes the lead in a revivified performance, which Sessa plays off of through the nuance of his character. Writer David Hemingson’s dialogue feels realistic and genuine, and the result is characters we can easily root for, even when they don’t root for each other.

It’s reasonable to say that this movie is overrated. Despite audience and critic scores above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, the plot is spread thin at times and, particularly early on, the pacing is too slow. It has some extraneous elements; a few of the holdovers have out-of-place scenes. These scenes do contribute to the mood, but they don’t always contribute to the plot.

With that said, at the end of the day, it’s a story about characters connecting with each other by learning to understand one another.

Perhaps, the near-universal approval of this film is a reflection of a starved appetite for that story. Particularly at the holidays, it’s one that moviegoers will want to hold close to their hearts.

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