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Home > The Holdovers (2023): A Review

The Holdovers (2023): A Review

The Holdovers (2023): A Review

The Year’s-End Heartfelt Comedy

It’s common to hear people utter phrases like “They don’t make them like they used to” when referring to films. What this means exactly varies from person to person. Whether it’s referring to the subject of movies or the quality, people will complain about the current state of Hollywood and filmmaking. With The Holdovers, director Alexander Payne created what feels like a relic of the past through a film that is of a different decade.


The Holdovers follows Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), an ill-humored teacher at an all-boys prep school. As the school closes down for Christmas break, Hunham is chosen to stay behind as a punishment to watch over a group of students who are unable to be with their families for the holiday. When one of the students’ fathers shows up in a helicopter, he offers to take the other boys with him on a family ski trip. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Angus (Dominic Sessa) is unable to join them, leaving him behind with Hunham and the cafeteria administrator, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). As the three begin to spend more time together, they form unlikely bonds and relate to each other more than they thought they could. 

Feeling Out of Time

The most obvious element of The Holdovers is the look of the film. By attempting to make the film resemble those from the ‘70s, it helps enhance the experience by incorporating the tone and atmosphere of the decade. The color-grading and texture of the movie present a warm, graceful, nostalgic, and comforting feel, tying back into the Christmas setting. To add to the ‘70s aesthetic, there is a graininess that works as another element to help better immerse the audience. While the movie would still hold up as one of the year’s best without these technical qualities, their inclusion makes the movie feel in line with other films it emulates, such as Dead Poets Society. 

Exchanging Flash for Elegance 

Along with the look of the movie, the writing and story feel nostalgic as well. It’s neither flashy nor fast-paced but rather takes its time to focus on the characters. Never does the story rush through any segments or scenes to simply get to the next big moment. In today’s current film climate where it seems countless movies are trying to incorporate a high-octane energy to keep the pace going, the more laid-back approach in The Holdovers feels like a welcome breather.

The Holdovers (2023): A Review
Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in “The Holdovers” | Image: Focus Features

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Whereas the story is pretty straightforward, its characters are not, having as many layers as an onion. Similar to Dazed and Confused, another ‘70s-setting film, The Holdovers is more character study than story-driven. Paul Giamatti gives what is likely the best performance of his career in what should be an unlikable character; however, he drags out the humanity in Hunham. He’s presented as an old, strict, curmudgeonly man who’s fairly surface-level. Through the straightforward story and relationship with Angus, Giamatti is able to reveal, layer by layer, the various emotions and softer sides to the character. 

In his only credited role on IMDB, Dominic Sessa as Angus is able to hold his own against the veteran Giamatti. Unlike Hunham, Angus is shown from the beginning to have many layers and a deep emotional depth. However, similar to Hunham, he comes off as a little unlikable in the beginning due to how rambunctious he is. As the film develops his character, he grows in likeability with Hunham as they each draw out the humanity in one another. The film’s slow pace provides numerous opportunities for Angus and Hunham to have long, drawn-out conversations that are actually engaging and informative. 

Serving as a counterbalance between Angus and Hunham is Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s character Mary Lamb, the cafeteria administrator. She’s given her own story arc about grieving the death of her son, who was a graduate of the boarding school and who died while serving in the Vietnam War. Randolph provides an excellent performance that is humorous at times but with definitive moments of heaviness. She is able to demonstrate her character’s hopefulness, as well as give glimpses into the grieving process she is experiencing on the first holiday without her son. It’s a powerful performance that oddly serves as a great addition to the Christmas movie, as it presents the darkness some go through during the holiday season. 

Cutting the Tension with Humor

As the film juggles various serious and dramatic subject matters, it’s able to keep holiday cheer by tossing in moments of dry humor. The film is never overly jokey, as it savors these moments to help elevate the tension between the heavy scenes. Also, the characters naturally have comedic tendencies that help blend the comedy and drama together. All three leads have their own sense of humor, with Hunham’s being more dry, Angus more childish, and Mary’s more observational. The blend of comedy from each character helps keep the film interesting and prevents it from growing stale.

While The Holdovers isn’t the best film of the year, it doesn’t contain any major glaring flaws from the technical side. In terms of the story, it purely comes down to taste. The average audience will likely find the movie too slow or dull and not really take an interest in the conversational aspect. The movie panders more to those wanting to relax with a film that feels like a warm blanket wrapped around them as they enjoy a hot beverage. 

The Holdovers is currently streaming on Peacock.

The Holdovers (2023): A Review
Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in “The Holdovers” | Image: Focus Features

The Holdovers (2023) Official Focus Features Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Mason Kupiainen is a recent Butler University graduate with a degree in Creative Media and Entertainment. His work has been published in Butler Collegiate, The Mall, and Byte BSU. Along with written work, he has a videography portfolio with Indy Blue Video, Byte BSU, and Ball Bearings.

Cailen Fienemann is a current student at Le Moyne College pursuing her BA in English and Communications with a film studies minor and a creative writing concentration.  Though uncertain about her career end-goals, any job that allows her to write is a cherished one indeed.