The Holdovers (2024.8, Fine , Funny)

In The Holdovers, three people, rife with their own problems, spend Christmas break, 1970, with each other. It is funny and emotional. And it’s a Christmas Movie. (3.5*)
The Holdovers
The Holdovers

The Holdovers – Snapshot

The Holdovers tells the story of three people, stuck with each other at a western Massachuusetts prep school over the December holiday break in 1970.  Each of them has particular issues in their lives that give them an unhappy attitude towards their lives and each other.  Over the course of two weeks, however, they learn more about each other and, in doing so, about themselves.  (3.5*) 

Where to Watch:

Stream: Prime

Rent/Buy:  Fandango/YouTube/Apple/Google ($6)

The Holdovers – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (5) / Oscar Wins (1) :

Best Picture

Original Screenplay (David Hemingson)

Leading Actor (Paul Giamatti)

Supporting Actress (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) WINNER

Film Editing (Kevin Tent)

The Holdovers is the eighth feature film to be helmed by Alexander Payne.  He did not receive a director’s nomination for his work here, but he was nominated three times before for directing Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.  (He has directed nine different actors in Oscar-nominated performances, including Oscar winner Da’Vine Joy Randolph in this one!)  He received an Adapted Screenplay nomination for The Descendants and won the Oscar for his script for Sideways.  Payne knows something about both writing and directing great movies and brought much of his Nebraska team in to make The Holdovers.

Despite his writing abilities, Payne did not get a writing credit for The Holdovers.  Instead, the Original Screenplay nomination went to David Hemingson.  Like Celine Strong, in Past Lives, this is Hemingson’s feature film screenwriting debut, although he has written for multiple TV shows since 1996.  (None of which strike a bell for me because I don’t watch much TV!). His script is a very strong opener with multiple intersecting stories, strong character development, and so many surprises.  What is most fun in The Holdoveers is how the plot turns in unexpected directions revealing new dimensions about our three main characters.  Sometimes, though, the events can border on the severely improbable which enhances the comedic effect, but distracts from the dramatic truth.  An example is the unsatisfying way that the number of holdovers drops from five boys to just one.  It isn’t clear to me why the story took that direction – why didn’t it just start out with the one?  Questions like this present themselves multiple times suggesting that, frequently, Hemingson thought of an idea, pursued it briefly and then changed his mind entirely and went somewhere else.  The result for the viewer is a sometimes-puzzling sequence of threads not all of which are tied together, nor necessary. (I have more to say about that in the final section!).

I’ve written before that a good script is necessary for a good movie but it rarely is sufficient- good actors are almost always required to bring the script’s characters to life.  In this case, the actors playing two of the three major characters received nominations.  Paul Giamatti plays a crotchety boarding school teacher of ancient history (you know – Carthage, Cicero, Greeks, Romans, etc.) named Paul Hunham.   He has multiple physical issues, including a lazy eye (that migrates from left to right throughout the movie) and, although we can’t smell him, apparently he reeks like a fish.  Although initially crusty and unappealing, he slowly changes over the course of the two week holiday break becoming remarkably more human – although I suspect he still stinks like fish.  Giamatti and Payne worked together in Sideways over two decades ago and Giamatti received a Supporting Actor nomination for Cinderella Man.  He is a Connecticut native and went to Yale so I suspect he knows a thing or two about New England boarding schools.

The second important character is that of the head of the prep school cafeteria who has an important life event that motivates many of her feelings and actions.  Played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, she won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her informed understanding of where a black female cafeteria employee fits into a nearly all-white prep school environment of Vietnam-era 1970s.  She also delivers great lines as she helps to soften Hunham’s crusty character with some well aimed zingers and frank advice.  (She and Paul also drink together a lot, since they seem to be the only two adults left at the school.).  This is Randolph’s first Oscar nomination and to win it is a big feather in her cap.  She appears in another Oscar-nominated movie this year, Rustin, has done voice acting (e.g. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish) and multiple television roles.

The third major character in The Holdovers is the student who couldn’t leave campus, Angus Tully.  He is played by Dominic Sessa and this is his first feature film.  Sessa was a student at the real boarding school, Deerfield, where many of the school scenes were filmed.  Giamatti was instrumental in getting Payne to consider Sessa, given his lack of film experience.  But he holds his own especially with such powerful actors as Giamatti and Randolph and I suspect we will be seeing more of him.  My biggest complaint about Sessa, though, is that he just didn’t seem young enough to play a high-school junior.  His voice was too deep and he had more presence than I remember existing in high school (and I graduated in 1970!).  Perhaps, though, as a “dramedy” his mis-fit is part of the story.

The Holdovers received a single “technical” nomination, for Film Editor, Kevin Tent.  Tent was Alexander Payne’s editor for at least four of his prior movies including Sideways, Election, The Descendants, and Nebraska.  He received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Descendants.  Clearly Tent and Payne have a symbiotic relationship in knowing when and how to intercut scenes, transition between them, and, of course, how to order them into a coherent story.

I couldn’t find any Oscar history for any of the other technical credits.  But, as a movie set in 1970, the filmmakers did a great job recreating a film that looks and feels as if it belonged in that era.  The soundtrack consists of multiple tracks of Christmas carols, 1970’s popular music, and some original music from Tin Hat member Mark Orton – who has worked with Payne before (see below).  The film was recorded digitally by Eigil Bryld, a Danish cinematographer perhaps most known for In Bruges.  In The Holdovers, he goes to great length to add computer-generated scratch marks and grains which accurately reflect the look of 1970s movies. Although no soundstages or sets were used, great effort was made to recreate the architecture, automobiles, clothing, and hairstyles of the 70s.  In a film set more than 50 years ago, it is now considered a “period” piece.

With three major nominations and a nod in the film editing category, it isn’t surprising that The Holdovers received a Best Picture nomination.  The movie scored a 10 on my Oscar Quality Index (OQI) placing it seventh out of all 38 nominated movies this year and tied with Anatomy of a Fall and American Fiction.  Like those two films as well as last week’s Past Lives, these movies are storytellers, not sensory experiences.  Although the stories are all very different, the objective is to stir emotion by the script and the acting.  In different ways, they all succeed.

The Holdovers – Related Movies

Nebraska (Direction, Editing, Composer, Costumes)

Sideways (Direction, Editing, Giamatti)

The Descendants (Direction, Editing, Costumes)

Election (Direction, Editing)

Cinderella Man (Giamatti)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish/ Rustin/ Dolemite is My Name (Randolph)

The Holdovers – What Others Think

Viewers generally liked this movie ranking it seventh out of all 38 films and fourth out of 24 general interest films, tied with American Fiction and Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.  Positive viewers used such descriptions as “Life Affirming”, “Throwback Filmmaking”, and “Deep Inside People’s Hearts” to characterize their love of the movie.  Negative comments, in the minority,  ranged from “Zzzzzz” to “overly formulaic” and even “Pleasant Film”!

Critical ratings weren’t quite as enthusiastic, but still fairly positive placing the film sixth out of 24 general interest films and tied with Poor Things and Godzilla Minus One.  Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert ) wrote that the movie’s “greatest accomplishment is not how easy it is to see yourself in Paul, Angus, or Mary; it’s that you will in all three.”  The three main characters are “at very distinct chapter breaks in their lives, but they will influence each other in heartwarming and genuine ways.” Wesley Morris (New York Times) gave the film a Critics Pick noting “There’s a sharpness to the comedy, some attitude and freshness, some wisdom.”  And later “Part  of what makes a movie like this special is the way it unfolds and how the characters reveal themselves to each other and how Payne, Hemingson and the actors reveal them to us.”  Both critics commented how the script is full of surprises and character changes that give the film its emotional fullness.

Overall The Holdovers ranks third out of 24 general interest movies, tied with Past Lives, last week’s movie. That’s a pretty impressive showing for a relatively low budget “Christmas” movie.

The Holdovers – Special Mention

Boarding Schools – The movie is set in 1970 in a private boarding school located in western Massachusetts.  Although I never attended a boarding school myself, I did start college that year and knew some of my classmates had come from that kind of environment.  So I was curious whether private boarding schools were still “a thing”, and if so, how big “a thing” they might still be.  

Turns out that in the 2019/2020 school year, there were about 3600 private secondary/high schools up slightly from ten years earlier, schooling 9% of the student population.  But only about 300 of those were actually boarding schools, where students live, instead of day schools.  School populations range from 100 to 1200 students with most of them around the 350 mark.  A few of them are free, but most cost up to $65,000 per year, about the same as college.  Of course they all advertise substantial student aid packages, just like college.

Still that seemed like a large number of schools, so I did a bit more research and it turns out that many of these 300 schools are state-sponsored schools for the deaf and blind.  And although many Native American boarding schools have been closed due to horrendous abuse over the years, there remain a few federally-run boarding schools on reservation land.  So really there are about 200-250 of these prep schools, located mostly in the coastal states of the country.  And it appears that they are still in the business of generating grist for the nation’s elite universities and colleges, which, in turn, produce a disproportionate number of the country’s government and business leaders.

The Holdovers – Michael’s Moments

The Holdovers is another Best Picture nominee that tells a story about relationships and the value they hold in understanding ourselves.  Hemingson’s script is a great study in revealing three flawed characters who are forced to understand and interact with each other in often unusual ways.  He inserts enough surprises in the character reveals and plot lines that the viewer can rightfully expect something new in every scene – and you don’t know if it’s going to be funny or dramatic.  Giamatti and Randolph both give us enlightened performances that show they were able to engage their characters’ feelings and to fully share them with each other and with us.  Director Alexander Payne took care to carefully and progressively serve up the passions and conflicts that his characters encounter.

Payne has said that he hates it when people call The Holdovers a “Christmas Movie”.  And yet, it was released in mid-November last year, has multiple Christmas carols in the soundtrack, and takes place over Christmas break at a New England prep school in 1970.  Oh, and one of the movie’s posters has a tagline of “Discomfort and Joy”.  So it is kind of easy to suggest that this film could have been on the Hallmark Channel, and may very well end up there after a few years.  I would agree that The Holdovers is indeed not your typical Christmas movie, but enjoys an engaging script, some very capable acting, and fun production values in trying to capture the look and feel of a 70s period film. 

But it is easy to understand why it gets that label.  Perhaps the biggest give-away is that it is loaded with improbabilities.  Early in the film the number of holdover students drops suddenly from five to just one and the series of events that explain that are, at best, highly unlikely.  Importantly, I couldn’t understand why that was necessary.  It may well reflect the TV background of the writer.  My beef with television is that writers have the luxury of introducing lines of development and then drop them either temporarily or, because the viewer tends to forget hanging threads over multiple episodes, permanently.  But the requirements of a two-hour movie are more exacting – if you start down one line of thought, you have a two hour time-frame to bring it back in.  In short, in a good feature film, there are no hanging threads – everything eventually comes together.  The Holdovers has many of these dead-end threads and they detract from the coherence of the film.

The Holdovers isn’t a bad Christmas movie at all, but it IS a Christmas movie, destined to be replayed on the Hallmark Channel in future Decembers.  It has moments of ascerbic wit, times of heartfealt sadness, and an ending suggesting only possibilities.  So it is worth a watch, but is not a great film.(3.5*)

The Holdovers
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