Does it seem like the best Christmas movies are those that stir a little vinegar into their sugar cookie recipe? To avoid diabetic shock, we gravitate towards holiday fare that isn’t too sweet, don’t we, whether it’s the story of the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, or NYPD detective John McClane? Now, there’s a new film that is destined to become, at the very least, a cult classic. It’s called THE HOLDOVERS and it’s one of the year’s very best films. The two-hour, thirteen-minute movie is dark and hilarious, often quite moving, and easily one of the best Christmas-themed entertainments in some time because it sustains its brilliance and never resorts to gooeyness.
The story, written by David Hemingson, and directed by Alexander Payne (ELECTION, THE DESCENDANTS), tells of three lost souls stuck at a New England boarding school with nowhere to go over the holiday break. Angus Tunney (Dominic Sessa, in one of filmdom’s most auspicious debuts ever) is a smart but jaded student at Barton Academy, anxious to graduate and embrace all the changes happening in America in 1971. He’s prickly and naïve, albeit very smart, and he’s the kind of jerk unafraid to let everyone know it too. He’s unpopular with his snotty, rich classmates, and his teachers too. Still, one teacher recognizes his talent. That would be Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti). In fact, as the film starts, Hunham is handing out graded term papers. All are D’s or F’s, except for Angus’s. His essay rates a B+ in Hunham’s distracting walleyes.
Hunham is a classics teacher who revels in his reputation as the toughest teacher on campus. He loves putting down the teen boys, almost giddily threatening to fail them right before Christmas. It’s fortunate that Hunham at least can tolerate Angus because soon into the plot, the teacher is forced to watch his student all Christmas break when the boy’s vacation plans fall through. Angus’ mother feels she needs to spend more quality time with her new, second husband and promptly disinvites her son just as he’s packed and out the door of Barton. ( No wonder Angus is so affected and gloomy.)
Making matters worse is the fact that Angus and Hunham must share the same room and bathroom as the school turns off the heat throughout most of the campus during the break. At least they’re well-fed by Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head of the cafeteria. She may be an intimidating, no-nonsense type, but deep down she’s depressed too. Mary has just started grieving over her deceased adult son who was just killed in Vietnam a few weeks earlier. Thus, this trio of sad sacks will be forced to make the best of the holidays as they can. Of course, this being Hollywood, that means they will eventually escape their ‘imprisonment’ with a revelatory road trip where they’ll all learn about each other and themselves.
Still, Payne never leans heavily into the pathos. Instead, he avoids treacle by keeping their dialogue snappy, the life lessons modest, and the spots of these leopards consistent. They’re better people than you’d originally guess, but none of them are angels either. Too many of those out on display during Christmas anyway.
To tell any more about the ups and downs of their holiday together would spoil the fun of all this. All three actors are terrific, all assured of factoring into the upcoming awards season, with Giamatti in particular, shining bright. I urge you to go check out THE HOLDOVERS this coming week during Thanksgiving vacation as it is the perfect antidote to any holiday headaches. And something tells me it is a film that you may return to again and again, making it a new part of your holiday traditions.