The Holdovers is a return to form for Nebraska native Alexander Payne centering on a teacher and student stuck with each other over Christmas break at an elite New England rep school Barton during the early 1970s.
The campus dramedy is consistently funny throughout, more so in the earlier sections before finding an emotional rhythm that becomes persuasive. Even with its drifting nature and reliance on many a Yuletide tune with folk-rock staples from the likes of Cat Stevens a sensible script connects with a near pitch-perfect period feel right down to the musty environs and wintry setting.
Paul Giamatti again is Payne’s crotchety go-to guy in much disliked classics instructor Paul Hunham who initially clashes with 15-year-old student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). As his stepdad and mother aren’t very receptive towards him like other titular preppy types that are given more work before greeted with an exam at the start of a new semester.
A ski trip by a father rescues nearly all the lads except Angus that starts a makeshift clan that includes head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph of Dolemite Is My Name) whose son was lost in the Vietnam conflict having attended Barton on scholarship.
Mary may not have much screen time, but is important to the central dynamic of such dyspeptic and aggressive folks like Paul and Angus. And, Randolph turns out to be an effective palliative presence from trauma that can be a source of attitude adjustment.
The misadventures that include a disastrous Christmas gathering set up by a colleague (nicely represented by Carrie Preston) ultimately forge a tale which touches on class, race, and entitlement. In a way, that, given the season, doesn’t become very cloying at all.
Newcomer Sessa might seem a bit one-note at the outside but develops a character that incisively goes toe to toe with Giamatti. The Billions, John Adams, and Sideways starrer shows his rangy character actor worth in sensitive strokes underlying a bilious drollness. Not just when he inserts ancient civilization bluster during
a conversation. The Holdovers might be something like what Bob Rafeson or Hal Ashby might have directed a half-century ago with a little scratchiness of 35mm film, and Payne has that nostalgic, genuine, lived-in feel intact that is a fine comeback after a disappointing.