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Austin Film Festival: The Holdovers (2023) Review

Alexander Payne’s newest offering is a subtle, intimate triumph. Set in 1970, it follows a curmudgeonly educator who stays on campus over Christmas break to chaperone students who are unable to return home for the holidays. Striking a balance somewhere between heartwarming and heartrending, I was really impressed by how well the film managed to build the characters and their relationships. It’s a warmth that even comes through on the trailer. The longer Angus spends with his grumpy teacher, Paul, the more each starts to understand the other. Touching on themes of family, friendship, the self and belonging, it’s a remarkably well-balanced film that’s sure to stick with viewers long after credits roll.

The visuals in this movie are so well done. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld was smart to shoot on actual filmstock, giving the images a graininess that not only evokes the historical period but also lends a human touch to the frame which adds an endearing quality to each shot. Camera movements seem very intentional, using zooms and tracking shots to keep us in tense moments with these characters, seeing their expressions and interactions as if we were standing right next to them. There are also moments of profound stillness, where audiences can really feel the weight of what it means to be left behind during the holidays, yet still manage to find community. I think the acting was also a huge reason why this film was so successful.

Paul Giamatti once again knocks it out of the park, showing a lot of change in his character’s personality and worldview, yet doing so in a way that doesn’t seem rushed. Aided by a well-paced script, Giamatti’s gentle approach to Paul’s realizing how students at this boarding school, albeit privileged, still have their own problems hits the classic emotional beats of an Ebenezer Scrooge archetype, but not exactly. He himself is of a much more modest background, and at the end we understand his character still has a lot of growing to do but has at least taken that first step. He has great chemistry with Dominic Sessa, who does a great job committing to his role as Angus. With his subtle and not-so-subtle physicality, Sessa embodies an angsty teen while leaving room for enough tenderness to make anyone root for this kid. It’s interesting to see how the script shifts our perception of Angus bit by bit, so that by the end we understand he’s not a problem child at all, quite the opposite. While these two leads do a great job of carrying the film, I found the real standout start to be Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Playing Mary Lamb, a lunch lady who also stays behind during the break so she can mourn her son, Randolph steals the screen anytime she’s shown. With a powerful presence that spans both ends of the emotional spectrum, she’s the glue that brings and keeps Angus and Paul together each time an argument disrupts their growing camaraderie.

This is maybe one of the better holiday films I’ve ever seen because it doesn’t flinch away from how hard this time of the year can be. Whether they’re unable to join their families due to travel issues, death or simply not having anyone left, this group of misfits finds community in their shared solitude, and are able to grow as people because of it. In an age where we all feel so disconnected from one another, The Holdovers shows the power of trying to understand our fellow humans. Its wonderfully written script is brought to life by precise visuals and great acting; you’ll laugh, cry and feel a kind of kinship with those in the theater who are doing the same. The Holdovers is now in theaters across the country, and I hope you make time to see it!

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