The Holdovers: a funny warm shot for winter’s cold days

Published on 27 February 2024 at 23:13

By Jessica van der Boor

In the morning that I went to the cinema to see this film, I woke up to the sound of helicopter helices in the grass area in front of my kitchen window. Running back to my room in an attempt to find my phone, I missed the opportunity to record it—just for the sake of it. Some hours later, I’m facing a helicopter again as I watch The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne, with the difference that the cinematic snowy field seems more angelic than my window’s beige landscape.

Within the white scenery of upper-class countryside America, the last students are picked up to leave from the boarding school for the holidays. The only people left to stay in the empty halls of the school are Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), due to his mother being on a late honeymoon with his stepdad; the disliked teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who got in charge of taking care of the kids who didn’t leave for Christmas; and Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook who is grieving the loss of her son. They are succumbed to spend the holidays together, in what they thought would be an eventless and boring period. The audience is then introduced to a Christmas film that surpasses the borders of the holiday months, and to a timeless and funny experience that can (and should) be enjoyed all year long. 

The film starts by hinting at a simulation, as if we have just inserted a cassette tape in the grey chunky video player underneath the tube television in our parents living room. For a moment I questioned whether this was actually a restored version of an older movie, and not a new release, which I would nonetheless embrace. The opening scene feels as if retrieving a dusty old book and finding out a rich colourful universe within it. The year is 1970, and we are placed in an elite all-male boarding school, home to the children of politicians and CEOs. The feature does not shy away from making fun of this kind, but does with a sensibility for the kids who somehow do not belong. 

It presents us with a coming-of-age that is not bound by age; the borders between teen years and adulthood defined by memento rather than number. Tully is two years older than his class colleagues, due to previous school's expulsions, which now enforce in him a fear of being casted away to military school. We can hardly imagine him in one: he is nerdy, honest, and spontaneous. The teacher, Paul, is strict, but also surprisingly class-conscious. He is a man in his 50s living in what has been his home during his long-gone formative schooling years, and is still trapped emotionally in this same place. The seemingly grumpy teacher does not return to his childhood to become softer, as many films have already done before, rather he realizes that adulthood requires more steps. And that’s what is striking and innovative about the movie, it does not rely on the utopian thread of change, but it carefully polishes emotions out of these stiff characters. The characters are rightfully as they are, there’s no burst of personality shift, but they are still able to go through transformative processes of growing. The final scene of Paul almost marries that of Sofia Coppola’s newest release, Priscilla.

The corduroy fabric of the pants shines a brown texture in the cinema screen, the white of the snow contrasts with the wooden classrooms, reminding me of the University of Toronto’s interior. The purple robe Mary wears brushes the velvet green sofa, as she sits in front of a 60’s boxy television. She watches The Newlywed Game, a tv show where couples must prove what they know about each other—it could easily be mistaken as a YouTube video prompt. Tully’s face in the car window resembles a Greek God with rose cheeks facing soft yellow streetlights, which resonates with Paul’s random anecdotes about ancient civilization, his teaching subject, in which the movie makes it clear that you have no obligation to understand, what makes it even funnier. It makes use of references without demanding previous knowledge from the viewer. It invites us to touch and feel textures of an old tape. Editing follows along, textures and frames are sewed together smoothly, with sometimes fade transitions that were so widely used in older films but managing to keep it modern. Nominated for Best Photography and Screenplay at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the captures are truly stunning. 

I like to call this combination of aesthetic and narrative elements as loser films, which is not degradative but quite the opposite, I believe it highlights the powerful simplicity that they carry. Think of Juno (2007), or Funny Pages (2022). Average people that interact with other average people. It’s sometimes dorky, heavily character-driven, the visuals are like live action doodles. It doesn’t attempt to be more than what it is. The Holdovers often brings an aesthetic that is academic-looking, with the brown tones of wooden dining halls, yet it doesn’t attempt to recite poetry. The lights coming from the street shops in the background are comfortable, this is not a place for reflection that leaves you with no space on the sidewalk. Rather, the dialogue grips you as if you are in the middle of a conversation in your living room without a pressure to sound smart, the performances are inviting. Randolph’s and Giamatti’s victories on the Golden Globes resonate well, they take up the whole room without any kind of exaggeration, with the aid of close-up shots that do not repel. Characters become intimate with each other to the same degree we are with them. It’s a warm movie flamed in tasteful cognac.

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