Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Universal Pictures UK
“Life is like a henhouse ladder,” opines Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), “shitty and short.”
It’s one of many sharply clever – and quotable – moments in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, a gentle and warm-hearted tale of a group of very different people forced together by circumstance. It’s a long film, but it’s told with such depth of feeling that every minute of its runtime feels totally warranted, so when it ends you feel sad to be pulled out of the cozy, nostalgia-tinged world it conjures.
Even its plot, set in 1970’s New England on the grounds of the fictional Barton Academy, recalls classic American campus novels like John Williams’ Stoner or Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe. Take the ‘holdovers’ of the title, these are the people with nowhere to go when the school shutters for Christmas and are left glumly stuck on campus.
Giamatti’s grouchy Paul Hunham teaches ancient history and is widely disliked, while canteen head Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) can’t bring herself to return home after the death of her son in Vietnam. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is fiercely intelligent but has a wish to self-destruct; his mum and stepdad have ditched him to honeymoon.
The Holdovers recalls a simpler and less pretentious era of independent filmmaking, even down to the vintage logos and age-rating which precede it. While these would feel like gimmicks in the hands of others, Payne is able to follow it through with his direction. Indeed, there’s something legitimately nostalgic about Payne’s filmmaking in that it appears to be a relic from the very time it depicts.
Besides the vintage logos, Eigil Bryld’s splendid cinematography has a grainy, dusty sheen which evokes the wear and tear physical film accrues. Notice, too, the gentle cross-fades, low-key delivery, and montages set to the music of the era: all wonderfully atmospheric touches that deepen and enrich the film’s setting and characters.
The performances are lovely. Giamatti savours the role of a cantankerous old grouch, but when he lectures on the Peloponnesian War he springs to life, unable to comprehend why his bored-senseless pupils fail to see the profundity of what he teaches. “To understand the present, we have to look towards the past,” he says, but Giamatti’s posture and stare suggest someone refusing to reckon with the unpleasantness of the man he’s turned into. It’s only now he’s beginning to question what his life has really been worth.
This is surely the performance of Giamatti’s career, and his scenes with Sessa’s scrappy Angus Tully are amongst the film’s highlights: “I find the world a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me,” Hunham tells Angus.
Randolph is exquisite as the underappreciated canteen head Mary, in a role which has all but locked her in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination next year. She does so much with stillness here: she a woman uncared for by most, but who still seeks good in everyone.
In one scene she delicately unpacks her dead son’s baby clothes. In the hands of Randolph, the simple act of placing a pair of pristine, tiny shoes in a drawer becomes an act of real emotional heft.
Giamatti and Sessa steal the show with gusto and their performances are big-hearted and brash but make no mistake, this is Randolph’s film. She is the softly spoken miracle at the heart of this wonderful ode to difference and circumstance.
The Holdovers – official trailer
The Holdovers is set for release in UK cinemas on 19 January 2024. For more on The Holdovers visit: www.universalpictures.co.uk/micro/holdovers
LFF screenings ran at MAC from 4 October until 15 October, for more info visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk
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