Alexander Payne (dir)
DCA, Until 1 Feb 2024
Sentimental, funny and engrossing, The Holdovers hits a captivating balance between the happy and the sad. The movie opens with the sound of a record being put on as the era-influenced production credits roll. A vinyl is playing and its crackling merges seamlessly with the opening shot of a choir of schoolboys singing, drawing you into the film with ease and warmth. That vinyl sound is one that I’ve always found homely and it’s a perfect welcome to the cosy feel of the film. This cosiness, however, is imbued with an equal amount of melancholy. It lingers but never takes over the film so as to create discomfort. Instead, this atmosphere of melancholy, integral to our understanding of the characters, rises up in small moments and gestures.
David Hemingson’s script, equal parts empathetic and comedic, is complimented by the efforts of cinematographer Eigil Bryld to create an authentically period look. I was surprised to discover that Bryld shot the film digitally because the movie’s tonality, and the minimal grain which pops up from time to time creates an expectation of it being shot on film.
Set in New England boarding school Barton Academy, the story is concerned primarily with a trio of characters: troubled student Angus Tulley (Dominic Sessa), the school’s head chef Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and strict classics teacher Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti). The three learn to get along with each other when they have to stay behind at the boarding school over the festive period.
The acting is down-to-earth and feels appropriately sincere. The story follows suit, avoiding the intensity of character arcs in many found-family stories, and opting instead for gradual developments in dynamics rather than overt changes in heart. This feels real in that the characters grow to understand and appreciate one another, while also still finding faults and annoyances. That the acting and writing are rooted in reality means that even great gestures of friendship feel understated.
Dominic Sessa’s debut is nothing less than outstanding. He brings his character to life through his grounded approach, avoiding the pitfalls of a stereotypical overly angsty troubled teen trope. Randolph’s portrayal of a grieving working class mother is striking; the quiet act of gently taking baby boots out of a box and looking at them is filled with so much subtle emotion and meaning that you can’t help but tear up. The chemistry between the three is captivating. There is a wonderful rawness to the character dynamics. This can be seen in the friendly but initially uncertain conversations between Mary Lamb and Mr Hunham, and in the mellowing of the antagonistic relationship between Mr Hunham and Angus. It’s lovely to watch as three characters who begin the film firm in their differences learn more about each other and begin to understand and bond through both knowledge and difference. The film is showing in cinemas but it is also available on many streaming platforms: Prime, Apple, YouTube movies, Peacock. But seeing it at a theatrical venue offers something extra. If you have the opportunity, I really recommend seeing it with or amongst people. There is something about hearing people around laughing and crying that heightens the experience, especially in the warm and intimate atmosphere the film crew has worked hard to create. This doesn’t mean you will miss out when you stream the film for The Holdovers is powerful enough to reach out and draw you in no matter what.