The Holdovers

Director Alexander Payne balances emotional realism with retro fun and biting comedy as he teams up with Paul Giamatti once again

Film Review by Zoe Crombie | 15 Jan 2024
  • The Holdovers
Film title: The Holdovers
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
Release date: 19 Jan
Certificate: 15

From the nostalgic onslaught of retro logos to the warm, grainy cinematography and production design that looks like it was marinated in Jim Beam, Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers walks a delicate line, balancing retro fun and harsh emotional realism. But the film succeeds at every turn while nailing some pompous targets in its takedown of the cruelty privilege can nourish.

Part campus comedy (the high school politics frequently call back to Payne’s Election), The Holdovers centres around the relationship between a gloriously sarcastic teacher and an intelligent but troubled teenager forced to stay at boarding school for Christmas. These two are played respectively by the ever-wonderful Paul Giamatti, and impressive newcomer Dominic Sessa in (amazingly) his first film performance. The heart of the film, however, is Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s quietly devastating presence as Mary Lamb, the school’s cook grieving her son, a poor Black student who was unable to avoid the draft like his peers and was killed in the Vietnam War. If anything, the film would have benefitted from spending more time with Mary, whose pain serves as unspoken catharsis for much of the runtime.

In the canon of Christmas films where the protagonists are having a noticeably un-Christmassy time, The Holdovers fills a niche for those of us who don’t always enjoy the season as we hope we might. Whether that’s down to personal circumstances or the miseries of the world, this movie is sure to become a standby for the festively bereft.

Released 19 Jan via Universal Pictures