The faux-retro affect of Alexander Payne’s new Vietnam-era film, The Holdovers, could never be mistaken for something genuine. Regardless of how it’s meant to be taken, the fabricated studio logos for Focus Features and — given the series of abuse allegations against Payne — Miramax in particular are bracing anachronisms. The film’s opening credits, its film grain, and its period-appropriate soundtrack may be attractive, but there’s an undeniable phoniness to the affect. And that phoniness hangs over the entirety of this film — even if the resulting effect doesn’t completely infect what Payne is attempting to do. And he does manage some unambiguous successes with The Holdovers, particularly in guiding the essential performances of the film’s three lead actors.
That trio consists of Paul Giamatti, as a teacher assigned (as punishment) to supervise a group of students left at a prestigious boarding school during the Christmas holiday of 1970; Dominic Sessa, as one of said students; and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary, a cafeteria worker grieving the loss of her son, a recent graduate of the school who was killed in Vietnam. All three characters are archetypes, but Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is conceived as an outright caricature: he’s smelly, lazy-eyed, proudly unlovable, and ineffectual. When Angus (Sessa) suggests that it’s absurd to assign additional material over the break to make up for an exam most of his classmates failed, Hunham simply cancels the makeup. Rendering this character as a cartoon version of a jaded boarding school teacher seemingly divests him of the capacity for virtuous redemption, a trope often seen in this kind of character-driven film and which prevents the characterization from ever emotionally cohering. But there’s an integrity and pronounced humanity to Giamatti’s development of Hunham, which allows what seems to be a superficially slight arc to stealthily build affecting depth.
Secrets are a notable motif in Payne’s film, and Hunham and Angus also bear several for much of the runtime; for his part, Angus’s obscure the reasons for his acting out — which go beyond run-of-the-mill teen angst — and render him something of a cipher. But Sessa’s adolescent rage, not a quality intuitively quelled by Giamatti’s irascibility, is similarly, surprisingly grounded. Indeed, the novelty of this duo’s dynamic, based not quite either in similarity or in opposition to the other, but rather in a sort of disjointed malaise, is the film’s greatest asset. Mary, meanwhile, is both far more conceived in cliché and is often sidelined throughout, but Randolph’s performance manages to feel as lived-in as Giamatti and Sessa’s, elevating the material she’s given more than she has any reason to. And, though the optics of a woman of color playing the clear third lead to two white men aren’t ideal, what exists of her character arc does feel firmly and specifically rooted, rather than existing only to serve those of her co-stars.
Indeed, the pleasure Payne finds in these character arcs is worth further dissecting. The shifts we observe in these characters are realistically incremental over what seems like a set timeline, occasionally counted in days via chyron. When the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, no drastic or definitive change has been evinced, but simply a satisfying sense that briefly opening the channels of communication between them has led to productive expansions of their worldviews. The film makes the mistake of continuing into a final half-act that introduces a conflict that requires the drastic and definitive change the film has heretofore eschewed, and though this move doesn’t ring quite as false as the ludicrous opening production cards, it does lead to a far less satisfying conclusion than Payne’s restraint has suggested up to this point. By surfacing a specific conflict, the director exposes that both the thematic content undergirding The Holdovers is fundamentally underdeveloped. Conversations and compositions gesture toward discourse surrounding mental health, the Vietnam War, class, pedagogy, and more, but none are actually explored in any meaningful way, and so when such topics are dragged into the climax, it rings quite hollow. And so, despite surface impressions that range from blithely pleasant to genuinely moving or even hilarious in moments, The Holdovers never quite feels effectively or fully conceived, stuck in some nebulous territory between the slight coming-of-age comedy it presents as and a more serious-minded look at an era and its people in crisis.
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 3.