Review: The Holdovers – A sweet and sour Christmas cocktail

Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa


Whether it’s Home Alone, Elf, or Die Hard, it’s hard not to have a favourite Christmas movie. It’s something that you cosy up to each year just to get you into the spirit of things. But sometimes you want a little more from your Christmas movie of choice—a little spice to balance out the sweetness. Somehow, miraculously, The Holdovers manages to dance that fine line between heartbreaking and heartwarming while still keeping it cosy.

In 1970s New England, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) teaches history at an all-boys school. He’s something of a grouch, a grinch, or even a Scrooge, and neither the boys nor the faculty like him very much. The kids call him “Walleye” because his eyes never face the same direction, and out of sheer luck (and a little schmoozing), he has to watch the boys who are staying at school over Christmas. Once the school term ends, all that are left in the great halls of the upper-class school are five boys and a grieving lunch lady (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). As the snowy days drag on, Hunham and student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) develop a push-and-pull relationship, and the two loners become unlikely friends.

From the look of it, The Holdovers is a cheesy comedy riffing on movies like The Breakfast Club, or maybe Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But if you’re familiar with director Alexander Payne’s work (Sideways, Nebraska), you’ll have a better understanding of this character-focused dramedy. It’s funny, but almost incidentally, very dry humour. Like when the little Mormon kid snitches to the teacher, the bully gets revenge by flinging his mitten off into the snow—but ‘only one, so you feel the loss all the more, that twisted f-cker’.

It’s a movie that deals with grief, loneliness, and disconnection—the shadow that falls over Christmas for many—and yet it’s still an upbeat heartwarmer. They make an effort for each other, take time for each other, and scrounge up a little Christmas spirit from where there was none. It’s very much a modern A Christmas Carol, and one that really brings out that feeling of community and connection that’s so central to the holiday. Chances are it won’t take the place of your old, reliable Christmas favourite, but it’s wonderful enough that it just might.