There are familiar elements of The Holdovers that could easily make it a passive melodrama. It tells the story of three sad souls coming together on Christmas to find warmth and reliability amid their lonely situation. But there’s a warmth to how this dramedy approaches its nostalgic 1970s setting and character-focused story. From the first few moments, a certain love can be felt that made me feel so good, longing to stay with these broken souls over a cozy and intimidating holiday season.
There are surprises within the first few minutes of this film. Paul Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a teacher of ancient history at a boy’s academy who could easily be written as the Scrooge or Grinch of this tale. He’s given the chance when presented with a plate of Christmas cookies in his hermit habitat. He could throw those cookies away, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hate Christmas, his profession, his students, or even the staff he associates with. Paul is just a guy who loves his job so much that he hates to cave to the corruption of the money-hungry administration or let his students skate by without learning anything. He’s also got a lazy eye and an odd smell that makes him tick all the boxes for the students to look at him negatively.
His devotion and odor lead to him being chosen for the most draining duty of staying behind at the academy on Christmas break to look after the students who can’t go home. One student who was hoping this wouldn’t be the case is Angus Tully, a teenager who is Paul’s best student, considering he’s the only one who manages to get a grade above a B on his assignments. Having had problems with his family, Tully grows increasingly frustrated when it becomes clear he’ll be the only holdover this year. Of course, this will give Paul and Angus plenty of time to get to see a different side of each other beyond their student/teacher association.
Also present at the school for the holiday season is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the campus cook. It’ll be her first year at the school without her adult son, who went off to die in the Vietnam War. She grieves in her own way of smoking and drinking in between making meals, sharing a glass and a spark with Paul as they connect further. She puts up a strong front, but with enough hard drinks, her husband and son’s dead weight hits like a sledgehammer to her soul. She’s got some stuff she’s got to work through, and it’s unbelievably sweet that the best way Paul and Angus go about doing this is just being there for her. Few, if any, words are needed to provide her comfort, where a ride home and a good night’s rest can rejuvenate her soul, gently giving her room to move on.
Throughout the film, there’s a lingering notion of fear in the three broken souls. Paul and Mary are concerned with being able to move on from what they once were, while Angus is terrified of becoming his father. Slowly, they all come out of their comfort zones to reveal a little more about each other. Christmas dinner for them will not be an airing of grievances, but encountering a prostitute on the street will inspire Paul enough to open up to Angus more on the nature of sex and history. Right up to the last few scenes, so many secrets are unearthed and treated with a sympathetic tone.
The film runs the perfect line of being deeply touching and astutely hilarious. Paul’s dry humor combined with Angus’s edgy honesty is a perfect combo for such memorable scenes of a haggard Paul stumbling to keep up with a fleeing Angus through the halls. A snippy feud leads to a trip to an emergency room, but that leads to an evening dinner, which leads to an unexpected meeting with a woman Paul fancies, leading to him getting invited to a Christmas party. The holiday season continues with adventure as Angus makes his case for having more fun while Mary shoots over a knowing nod between sips and smokes.
The Holdovers will surely be a must-watch Christmas movie for the future, considering how genuinely honest and heartfelt it comes across as a cozy dramedy. Director Alexander Payne perfectly constructs this film that feels like an unearthed gem from the 1970s that warms the soul. Watching this film conjured up the weirdly comforting moments of Christmas that are quieter, from a Christmas Eve shift at the video store to a makeshift Christmas tree gathering during college. Those are the times during the season worth savoring, and Payne lets us drink it all in like a warm cup of cocoa. Maybe spiked with a dash of whisky for some extra warmth.