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The Holdovers movie review: Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti reunite for a charming and disarming tale

We all lie, either to ourselves or to others.

But telling the truth can be the first step to changing yourself and the world around you in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, a charming and disarming film that revolves around a thoroughly miserable history teacher, played with relish by Paul Giamatti.

The Holdovers, which is screening at the BFI London Film Festival, is Payne’s eighth film and his first since the misfire of 2017’s Downsizing. Here, reuniting with Giamatti almost 20 years since the success of California wine comedy Sideways, he is back on top form.

It is 1970 and Giamatti is Professor Hunham, a foul-smelling and grumpy teacher who is loathed by pupils and faculty alike at Barton boarding school in New England, which is full of the “dumb and rich”, as one character quips.

Due to his unpopularity, and not in any way due to his aptitude with young people, Hunham is left after the winter term with the ‘holdover’ students who are not going home for Christmas, and are instead stuck languishing at Barton. Hunham, given the disparaging nickname ‘Walleye’ by his pupils, has been urged by the headmaster to try and “act like a human being” for the holidays. His holding over colleague, school chef Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is likewise a sharp critic of his acerbic ways.

Joining them for the holidays is the wannabe-smartarse Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who is one severe infraction away from being packed off to military school. After events conspire to leave the pair together with Angus as the lone student for the two-week break, the lad does what you’d expect and plays merry hell (as best he can), testing Hunham’s patience and, in one frantic chase, his aerobic abilities.

Giamatti is the heart of the movie. He’s playing to type, but his performance seems to be a test for just how unlikeable a character can be while still retaining our support (after all, aren’t all teenagers “hormonal vulgarians”?). But Randolph’s Mary is undoubtedly the soul – a mother whose son, Curtis, was killed in Vietnam, having been unable to obtain the scholarship deferment so many of the Barton students enjoy.

Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa are stuck together in school for Christmas (LFF)
Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa are stuck together in school for Christmas (LFF)

Mary and Hunham share the habit of using alcohol to get them through the long winter at the empty prep school, but crucially, Mary is more prone to actually opening up and enunciating her feelings. Angus, it is revealed, has troubles of his own; he’s disliked by his contemporaries and unwanted by his mother and stepfather. Inevitably, these three lost souls find a way to come together.

As you might expect from Payne, The Holdovers works brilliantly as a comedy, littered with hilarious insults and dry humour, but it’s also a subtle social commentary on the attitudes of the Seventies, on race and on the power of privilege (some kids are literally choppered out of the school on a private helicopter).

Hunham refuses to budge in the face of that privilege, but he does begin to thaw in the midst of grief, and starts to confront the lies he tells himself and others. It turns a wintry film into a heartwarming tale about a trio who find a way, by hook or by crook, to get through Christmas together.

133 mins, cert 15

The Holdovers screens as part of the BFI London Film Festival on Thursday October 12; bfi.org.uk/lff. It is released in the UK on January 19, 2024.

Update 21/2/24: The Holdovers is now available to buy or rent on digital platforms now.