The Holdovers review: "Alexander Payne's best work since Sideways"

GamesRadar Editor's Choice
The Holdovers (2023)
(Image: © Universal/Focus Features/Seacia Pavao)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Alexander Payne doesn’t put a foot wrong with a charming comedy drama that finds him on Sideways-rivalling form.

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The Holdovers had its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. Here's our review... 

Amid current debates about streaming, AI, and cinema versus content, a certain phrase keeps popping up: ‘They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.’ Whether you agree or not, it’s a sentiment that seems to be playing on Alexander Payne’s mind, if his latest film is anything to go by. 

Rebounding from the muted reception to 2017’s Downsizing, Payne here goes back to basics. Set in the 1970s, The Holdovers sees strict teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) stuck at school over Christmas on babysitting duty, supervising students who are unable to return home during the holidays. One particularly rebellious student, Angus (Dominic Sessa), is giving him grief, but sure enough the pair soon connect.

Yes, it’s a familiar story that riffs on undeniable cliches, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a stripped-back triumph. Showcasing Payne's best form since the Oscar-winning Sideways, it thrives upon the writer/director’s reunion with that film’s leading man.

From the off - the screen crackling as vintage film logos appear - it’s clear The Holdovers is going to be old-school, just like its central character. As the camera slowly moves into his office, the pop soundtrack gives way to classical music, as Paul shuffles behind piles of books. He’s a man of tradition in every sense of the word, frustrating colleagues with his refusal to adapt to modern school politics. 

the holdovers

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Viewers might also find Paul exasperating, were it not for Giamatti’s delicate performance; there’s an immediate warmth to him. Though he continually dismisses his students with unique insults such as “hormonal vulgarians”, you can’t help feeling that, deep down, Paul does care about the boys of Barton Academy. Beneath the bravado are several vulnerabilities, which Giamatti slowly reveals as we grow closer to his reserved teacher. 

The film’s other protagonists are responsible for Paul coming out of his shell, notably student Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) and cafeteria manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Despite this being his screen debut, Sessa seems more than comfortable going toe-to-toe with Giamatti; his performance is superb. Like Paul, Angus is also in emotional pain, but chooses to cover it up with an abundance of swagger. He too could have been an off-putting character, but Sessa’s natural charm renders him endearing. 

Though the film ostensibly centres on the dynamic between Angus and Paul, it’s arguably Mary who is the beating heart of The Holdovers. Mourning the loss of her son, who was a student at the school, Mary chooses to stay there over Christmas to feel close to him. However, she doesn’t want any pity, only letting her grief show after several drinks at a Christmas party as her son’s favourite record plays: a heartbreaking scene that has ‘awards-show clip’ written all over it. 

There’s something comforting and soothing about watching these three strangers become a found family, despite their differences and difficulties. The Holdovers is a loving testament to the power of the human spirit, albeit one that favours subtle, melancholic grace notes over any need to shout. Though tinged with sadness - be prepared to shed a tear - it’s sure to become a feel-good, festive favourite.

The Holdovers will be released in selected US cinemas on October 27 before a wide release on November 10. It will be released on in UK cinemas on January 19. 

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Emily Murray
Entertainment Editor

As Entertainment Editor at GamesRadar, I oversee all the online content for Total Film and SFX magazine. Previously I've worked for the BBC, Zavvi, UNILAD, Yahoo, Digital Spy and more.