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MOVIES: LFF 2023 - The Holdovers - Review

Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a Christmas classic waiting to happen, which feels odd that I’m reviewing it now and odder still that it’s being released in the UK in January next year, like so much of the catalogue from the London Film Festival. It introduces us to a New England prep school baked in traditions, but also reliant on favouritism for its star pupils – which puts Paul Giamatti’s Paul Hunham in hot water when he refuses to give a favoured pupil the grades that he needs. As punishment, Paul’s sentenced to remain on campus during Christmas break and look after a group of damaged students with nowhere to go.

The film models itself off The Breakfast Club by having what is eventually whittled down to a group of three people being forced to cooperate over the summer, each with their own quirks. Dominic Sessa’s Angus Tully is the student that Hunham sparks a friendship with – an unlikely bond as Angus opens up to reveal that he’s more than just the one-note asshole; smart enough to do well – not smart enough to make friends or have social skills. Da’Vine Joy Randolph meanwhile makes an excellent addition to the cast, joining Angus and Hunham as Mary Lamb, who lost her son in Vietnam and now operates as the School Head Cook, who can’t leave her post behind. The film does a great job at exploring the process of grief and letting go: the secrets that come out over the course of The Holdovers allow these characters to shine.

A film that deals with empathy, grief and forgiveness – whilst exploring loneliness and depression; is capable of striking a chord with many despite its 70s setting, and this isn’t just a film set in the 70s – it’s filmed like it was made in the 70s down to the style, pacing and choice of the writing: benefiting from purely authentic touches that don’t diminish the quality of the writing at all. It wouldn’t work without Randolph, Giamatti and Sessa tugging at your heartstrings: the beating heart of the film, Randolph in particular. “Not for we ourselves alone are we born” is a sentiment echoed by Hunham in the early half of the film – quoting Cicero proudly as though it was second nature to him, and the film builds on the togetherness of these strangers: a collective gathering of lost souls overcoming life’s disappointments.

The film echoes the 90s boarding school dramas that were so popular: there’s a lot of Dead Poets Society here; and Giamatti’s ability to capture a man experiencing depression over Christmas can’t help but instantly have you won over – his way of insulting the students he’s teaching and not letting him be bogged down by the corporate politics of the internal school that he works for is endlessly watchable.

The film strikes a balance between an honest punch in the stomach and a heartwarming hug with the sense and sensibility of Alexander Payne, freshly recharged from the disaster that was Downsizing. Yes you’re in familiar territory here; but the complex characters given nuance by the script and the actors’ performances really make The Holdovers stand out: a movie designed to make you feel both happy and sad at the same time. Uplifting spirits in the best way possible – whilst capable of simultaneously crushing them. The underbelly of the threat of Vietnam plays heavily here - these teenagers are lucky to know that is not what they are being sent - and the anxiety plays with them every step of the way.

There is no need for convolution here, The Holdovers moves along at a steady pace. The needle drops are executed calmy and to perfection – never staying a second longer than their welcome, and it’s the type of craftmanship told by a man very good at his job. It’s easy to label the film as something akin to a “they don’t make them like they used to” but The Holdovers is a very compelling argument against that: yes they can; and they very much do. Owen Kline’s Funny Pages has a spiritual sibling.

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