The Holdovers Review: Holding On And Letting Go

by Luke Swann Conlisk


Last week I went to see the new Alexander Payne film The Holdovers. I had heard next to nothing about it and at the time I wasn’t very familiar with the directors work. By the time I decided to go to the cinema last Tuesday The Holdovers was the only film that hadn’t started yet.

I went into this film expecting nothing at all, only wanting to pass a few hours. Imagine my surprise when I was absolutely blown away.


The Holdovers tells a simple, character focused story and it tells it very well. The plot centres around three main characters as they spend the Christmas holidays holding over at Barten Academy. Paul Giamatti plays a scruffy, by the book classics teacher named Paul Hunham who rules the classroom with an iron fist. Cynical and pompous he acts as a perfect mirror to the cocky and proud Angus Tully played by newcomer Dominic Sessa. Their only other companion is the schools head chef Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a woman in the grips of mourning her recently lost son. Together these characters must find comfort in each other’s company and make it through the holidays.

Look and Feel

Firstly, Alexander Payne has put together a beautifully shot film. The film takes place in the early 70s and Payne really makes this film feel of the time. I enjoy period pieces fine enough but something about them always feels sanitised and disingenuous. No matter how good the stories may be, these films and TV shows tend to feel like a theme park attraction.

The Holdovers in contrast feels like a lost relic of film history. Editing techniques prevalent at the time such as the slow fade and whip zoom are used throughout the film to give an authentic 70s feeling. While shot digitally on an Arri Alexa Mini, Payne and Bryld have made use of a variety of shooting and production techniques to give the feel of an imperfect film reel.

Combining the editing and cinematography with the decision to mix the films audio in mono creates a time capsule like experience that is best experienced on a projector in the theatre.


Paul Giamatti gives the performance of a career in this film. I had always heard others speak highly of him as an actor but with very little personal experience beyond catching the occasional clip or small feature I had no idea the range this man was capable of. Hunham is a character you’ll love and love to hate.

Everyone has had a difficult teacher in their life. Someone who seems to relish in taking out their own frustration on their students. The Holdovers gives us a look at what sort of life would cause a person to end up this way. Giamatti gives absolutely everything to this role to the point he just melts into the character.

The same goes for Dominic Sessa. Angus Tully can behave like a spoiled brat at times, lacking perspective and saying the first thing to come to his mind. But he’s also a wildly intelligent kid with real heart. This being Sessa’s first film role ever absolutely shocked me. In a less stacked year I could easily see a best supporting actor nomination for his performance. I’m eagerly anticipating what the young star will work on next.

As for Da’Vine Joy Randolph, she has my prediction for this year’s best supporting actress at the academy awards. The warmth and pain she brought to this role is truly heartbreaking at times. She also creates some of the biggest laughs in the film with a razor-sharp wit and excellent delivery. I would love to see her work with Giamatti and Payne again in future.


In a sea of excellent films released in the last twelve months it should have been no easy feat to take the top spot. But the more I watch this film the more my thoughts are reaffirmed. Hilarious, heartbreaking and devoid of all pretentions, The Holdovers is a modern Christmas classic. I look forward to enjoying the film with friends and family every year for decades to come.

Score: 5/5

At the time of writing The Holdovers is still in cinemas across the city.

Why not catch the film in theatres and support the local scene!