Sun, May 26, 2024

The Holdovers: A Powerful New Christmas Classic

When was the last time we’ve seen a serious Christmas movie? Not a genre film, like Hallmark’s standards or re-runs of animated Rankin/Bass specials from fifty years ago, nor a drama with a mention of Christmas, like Little Women or Green Book. Rather, a theatrically released, A-list Christmas flick.

This year, Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, Nebraska) and beloved actor, Paul Giamatti have both gifted us a sharp, bittersweet comedy-drama that rings in laughs and tears in bulk; The Holdovers.

Set in 1970 at Barton, a fictional boarding school in New England, we meet Angus Tully, a book-smart but bombastic student whose planned Christmas vacation to St. Kitts is cancelled when his frou-frou mother decides to embark on a last-second honeymoon. Tully is forced to stay at the school during the holidays under the snarky walleye of Professor Paul Hunham, a frumpy history teacher with a penchant for artful insult. Tully is held back with a group of ne’er-do-well students who eventually find an exit strategy, leaving teacher and student with the school cook, Mary Lamb, who grieves the death of her only son in the Vietnam war months prior. The old professor attempts to enforce while Tully seeks to entertain and be entertained. The trio grows close, bound together in snow-drenched disposition.

The Holdovers stars veteran actor, Paul Giamatti and newcomer, Dominic Sessa.

At the behest of Tully, a “field trip” to Boston is begrudgingly taken. There, we discover the boy’s birth father, Hunham’s former classmate, and Lamb’s sister, examining the depths of their sorrows and the height of their respective joys. Hunham grows from professor to father figure during this time, asserting the deeply hidden crumbs of empathy embedded in his whiskey-glazed gut. That trip turns out to be a liability for Hunham and Tully, with both careers at Barton in jeopardy because of their disruption of the school’s code of order.

It’s a dynamic as old as time and as American as Pumpkin Pie: an odd couple story set to Christmastime. Many a critic have crowned Holdovers as a new Christmas Classic, with critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes placing it in their number 3 spot for Greatest Christmas Films. A high honor that is richly deserved because of writer-director Payne’s ability to make a familiar story fresh; with snappy dialogue, rich secrets, and impenetrable love rising from cold vessels to warm surfaces.

Paul Giamatti gives one of the greatest performances of his career. His cantankerous, Paul Hunham is a delicious confection, annoying and hilarious. The puppylike fresh-face of Dominic Sessa, in his first film, harkens back to all the know-it-all students we grew up around (no matter the generation). Likewise, Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s stoic portrayal of a traumatized mother keeps the heartbeat, like the drummer boy to Baby Jesus.

Though crude language comes in bulk (mostly for an effective cause), ’tis a pity that Holdovers has an R-rating. The kids won’t be able to see it, but the adults will love everything about it. This is a must-see decorative mug of eggnog with a little extra Jim Beam. It doesn’t set out to convert the average Scrooge with pure sentiment, but with its drama, it may inspire the most curmudgeon to at least hold the door for a stranger. Little things that add up.

A further testament to the film’s critical acclaim: It’s easy to forget how dark a lot of Christmas classics are — It’s a Wonderful Life dealt with suicide and child abuse, and Miracle on 34th Street centered on a struggling family. Holdovers also fits this mold. This ain’t Hallmark. It’s devastating, artful, and far from delicate — all while keeping the warm charm of the season at the forefront.

Another Christmas miracle is the business the movie has made. Originally opening in a mere six theaters, its wide release saw it become the seventh-highest-earning film at the domestic box office on Thanksgiving weekend. Miramax has not yet recouped its $30 Million budget for the film (an insane deal for such a small project), but it is chugging along with its $14 Million earnings after only a month of nationwide screenings.

Life, according to Professor Hunham, is like a henhouse ladder: short and covered in… (We’ll say, “shavings”). Films like this, no matter the season, remind us of why life is worth living.

The Holdovers is playing only in theaters.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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