Comedy Drama

Away From Home for the Holidays: A TIFF Review of ‘The Holdovers’

September 21, 2023Ben MK

When you think of holiday movies, you might think of films like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, or A Christmas Carol. Every now and then, however, a holiday movie comes along that doesn't quite fit the standard genre boilerplate. Whether it's a tale of horror like Black Christmas, a comedy fantasy like Gremlins, or an action thriller like Die Hard, these are films that may not, at least at first glance, embody the holiday spirit, but which have still become mandatory — if not, ironic — seasonal viewing. And perhaps in time, the same will be true of The Holdovers, director Alexander Payne's comedy drama about the friendship between a grumpy professor and a misunderstood student.

The year is 1970, and at Barton Academy, most of the students, staff and faculty are preparing to leave for the Christmas break. Whether it's going back home to visit family or going on vacation, 'tis the season for saying goodbye to textbooks, exams and the rigor of daily class schedules. For a few unlucky ones, though, getting that well-deserved reprieve from school isn't an option. Known as holdovers, these are the students who have nowhere else to go. And as if being stuck on campus wasn’t bad enough, this year they'll be spending their winter break with adjunct professor of history Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti). One of the most despised teachers at Barton, Paul has built up a reputation for being belligerent and hot-tempered. However, when he finds himself supervising a teen named Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), a surprising thing happens. Discovering they have more in common that they ever imagined, Paul and Angus end up bonding over their respective hardships. But as the holidays come to a close, will this shared experience forever alter their teacher-student dynamic?

Marking a long-overdue reunion between Payne and Giamatti, who last worked together on 2004's Sideways, what follows is a movie steeped in the grainy, post-Vietnam aesthetic of 1970s cinema, making The Holdovers a fitting companion piece to other teen coming-of-age films from the era. Bolstered by all-around superb performances from the cast, especially Giamatti, Sessa and their co-star, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, this is a story about finding friendship, family and strength in the unlikeliest of places. And even though it takes place a century and a half in the past, it's the universal appeal of that very theme that keeps the result feeling timeless.

The Holdovers screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 13 min.

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