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The Holdovers: A heartwarming and hilarious coming-of-age classic – HELLO! reviews

Director Alexander Payne and Golden Globe winner Paul Giamatti get an epic school reunion 20 years after their hit comedy Sideways was released

Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers
Megan Bull
TV Writer
18 January 2024
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Director Alexander Payne said it himself: The Holdovers relies on our humanity. A relatable, coming-of-age classic, the movie transports audiences back to high school – or more specifically, Barton Academy – a fictional, New England prep school, in December 1970. 

WATCH: The Holdovers – trailer

Faced with the prospect of spending Christmas on campus, a group of mishmash teens are forced to spend the holidays with Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) – a curmudgeonly Classics teacher with a condition that leaves him smelling like fish. 

Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers© Focus Features
The Holdovers takes place at a New England prep school in December 1970

While four of the students get a lucky escape – it's misunderstood, rebel without a cause, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), that gets left behind; his only companions, cranky old Mr Hunham, and grieving 'cafeteria lady' Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). 

Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully in The Holdovers© Focus Features
Dominic Sessa delivers a stellar performance

A breakout star in every sense of the word, Dominic Sessa is the beating heart of this movie. A drama student plucked from class by Alexander Payne, The Holdovers marks his first on-camera job, lending a raw, and earnest sincerity to his performance. 

Capturing the many layers of Angus, a teen carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Dominic holds his own against Hollywood heavyweights Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph – and that's no easy feat. 

Hilariously snarky and charismatic, yet bitterly alone and desperately awkward, Angus is the human embodiment of every confused, and angst-ridden teen – we root for him because, at one point or another, we've all been him.

But don't be mistaken, The Holdovers isn't a tale of doom and gloom. Alexander Payne is a master of the comedy-drama genre, and he gives us as many moments of laughter and levity, as he does longing and sorrow. 

Paul Giamatti as curmudgeonly Classics teacher Paul Hunham© Focus Features
Paul Giamatti stars as curmudgeonly Classics teacher Paul Hunham

Akin to the best buddy comedies, Paul and Angus develop a mutual respect, understanding, and unlikely friendship with time. And as the film rolled on, I couldn't help but think of the warmth and sentimentality of the great John Hughes vehicles: Trains, Planes and Automobiles and The Breakfast Club

There's no doubt about it, The Holdovers is the kind of movie that'll acquire a cult following, but it won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's the small moments that count – a last-minute Christmas party and trips to the bowling alley and ice skating rink in Boston – that ground the movie. But, if you're looking for grand gestures and big dramatic moments, that's not what you'll find here. 

The Holdovers is an unlikely buddy comedy© Focus Features
The Holdovers is an unlikely buddy comedy

For me, The Holdovers is not only a Christmas classic but a coming-of-age classic too. It feels like it was made in the 1970s with vintage credits and a grainy earth-tone aesthetic. Plus, the fictional Barton is a real boarding school – Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts – to be exact. The film's quite literally rooted in authenticity. 

MORE: Da'Vine Joy Randolph reveals her 'deal breaker' for The Holdovers

READ: HELLO!'s 13 feel-good films to beat the January blues

Every single element of The Holdovers has been meticulously and painstakingly crafted. Da'Vine Joy specifically requested to cook in scenes; zoning in on Mary's instinctual ability to nurture, even after her son has passed. To create a sense of community, director Alexander Payne refused to use monitors on set – it's a decision that allows the actors to be as flawed, raw and human as possible – and it pays off.  

Da'Vine Joy as Mary Lamb© Focus Features
Da'Vine Joy as Mary Lamb

The great tragedy of The Holdovers is that audiences didn't get to watch it in cinemas at Christmas but, like Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti's first collaboration since 2004's Sideways, it's better late than never...

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