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‘The Holdovers’ finds its holiday spirit in not sugarcoating the difficulties of getting there

Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti reunite, where three people have to spend the Christmas and New Year's holidays together at a boarding school.

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The holidays are a mixed bag. For some of us, it’s full of quality time with family, treats, happiness, and something good under the tree. For others, it’s a reminder of what we lack regarding people and life goals, and you want to get through it as unscathed as possible. In story-esque fashion, most Christmas-themed films want you to believe in the spirit. Getting there may take some trips and scrapes, but all roads lead to something good and wholesome. Unfortunately, life is a little bit more complicated than that. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers looks to give hope through people resuming the search for the existence of it, but also anchors that in the fact that it’s not going to be a pretty process of getting there.

This film takes on the look and feel of existing in 1970 – from the retro introduction, aspect ratios of the camera, and the production and costume designs. Tucked inside an all-male New England boarding school is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), an ancient history teacher who is every bit of grumpy and has an axe to grind with the rich kids that populate his class. He is not hesitant to throw some loaded vocabulary jabs their way as he gives them their midterm exams back full of D and F grades and buries himself inside his work and a bottle of Jim Bean. In his class is a student named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a bit of a smart ass, but is the only kid in class that gets a B.

His hopes for a beach holiday are daunted as his mother and stepfather decide to ditch him late in the game and have him spend Christmas and New Years at school. Paul begrudgingly draws the short straw in the teacher who has to stay and tends to those left behind. After a slow start in getting some of the supplementary characters out of the way, The Holdovers takes the form of a project consisting of three people who eventually find their way to light.

To round things out, head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is walking into her first holiday season without her son, who unfortunately lost his life fighting in the Vietnam War. Writer David Hemingson gives us three types of emotional aches and pains that exceed the conventional setups of the lessons these characters have to learn – more substantial than a typical Lifetime-like ending. You have the range of deep, fresh sense of loss within Mary, and Randolph takes hold of this role and never lets go. Moments happen when she’s charmingly sarcastic around Paul and Angus and provides a sense of grounding about being thankful for what you have. Outside of that are the moments of spontaneous sadness that feel incredibly authentic, particularly at a party.

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With Paul, it’s more than uncovering where his layers of discontent come from and why he has never left this particular school for a book project, he’s never gotten around to doing. His disgust for privilege is rooted in a past transgression, but in the developing bond with Angus, he learns not to judge a book by its cover. He does want companionship and perhaps a love interest with someone who works at the school, Ms. Crane (Carrie Preston). Despite this, he hides his insecurities behind his extensive history acumen.

Angus needs somebody to give him a chance and tell him he’s not a screw-up. There’s a point in the third act where why that feeling resonates inside him comes full circle. The theme of family history and figuring out if you are doomed to continue the bad parts become more prevalent. It’s not that Payne combines all these characters as puzzle pieces to solve their problems completely. Instead, each one’s lack plays a part in sending them off on a path to find fulfillment. The Holdovers understand that it’s important to find the people in your life who will reinforce good things by being willing to show their flaws rather than constant reassurance despite not giving themselves that grace.