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‘The Holdovers’: Misery loves company

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) stand in the cold after leaving a Christmas party in “The Holdovers.” (Photo: Seacia Pavao)

The holiday season is usually one of reprieve and relaxation for high school students and staff, but for the main characters of “The Holdovers” it is anything but.

Directed by Alexander Payne and set in 1970, “The Holdovers” centers around one student and two staff members who must “hold over” and stay in their New England prep school, Barton, over winter break. There’s Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a universally disliked and grouchy history teacher; Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a troubled teenager estranged from his family; featured less but still critical is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a school cook who is grieving the loss of her son.

The film — nominated for five Oscars, including “Best Picture” — is nostalgic in ways that extend beyond the references to the Vietnam War and rampant underage drinking. It is character-centric rather than plot-centric, letting the characters tug the plot forward as they divulge secrets about themselves to each other in conversations.

It’s a tried-and-true tale: A group of somewhat unlikeable and despairful people from various walks of life somehow come together to become a little more likable and a little more hopeful.  This formula itself is reminiscent of late 20th-century films like “The Breakfast Club”, but “The Holdovers” distinguishes itself by tying in more mature topics such as mental illness.

The core message of “The Holdovers” is that anyone can learn and grow from anyone else, no matter how old or irritable or just plain irritating. It is never too late or hopeless to pick yourself back up and do something productive with your life. It is not the most unique theme, but still a touching one that expresses itself well through the film’s characters.

The three main characters are all very different from each other, but they all have three things in common: They are all stuck together in Barton over break, all deeply lonely and all deeply miserable. They also all take their despair out on the world in different ways ranging from Lamb’s occasional outbursts of aggression to Tully’s petty delinquency to Hunham’s near-constant general unpleasantness, leading to tension and hostilities.

The growth of all three main characters, especially Hunham and Tully, is subtle but clear. Nobody magically becomes a saint by the end of the film, but rather naturally progress into brighter and more loving versions of themselves as they grow close enough to bare their hearts to each other over the course of various petty squabbles and shared bottles of alcohol.

The characters walk a fine line between plain unlikeable and charming, and they do it well thanks to excellent writing combined with excellent actors. Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph all perform well in showing their characters’ best and worst parts. Similarly, the film as a whole alternates between lighthearted and serious, striking a balance that turns “The Holdovers” into a great drama with plenty of chuckle-worthy moments.

The soundtrack and visuals complement the story and characters well, too. Mark Orton’s soundtrack, though not particularly standout, is suitably composed of slow instrumentals, with the occasional retro jingle and choir-style Christmas carol.

Most of the film is cloaked in cool, winter tones that suit the season, with bursts of warmth becoming increasingly common as it progresses. The movie does not shy away from shadows, especially when it comes to scenes set within Barton.

Overall, “The Holdovers” is a thoughtful, slightly nostalgic film that places its characters first to explore the healing power of human connection even amongst people at odds. For those looking for a holiday movie, or any movie really, it is a rewarding watch.

“The Holdovers”

2 hours, 13 minutes

Rated R

Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Directed by Alexander Payne

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About the Contributor
Carissa Tsui
Carissa Tsui, Senior Staff Writer
Carissa Tsui (Class of 2024) joined The Voice her junior year and her favorite show is Survivor. Also, her favorite color is red and her favorite animal is the ocean sponge.

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