I love Christmas movies that are low stakes. The ones not about saving Christmas itself (à la “Elf”) or saving the town (like “It’s a Wonderful Life") but instead get at the holiday’s core themes in a more emotional and character-driven manner. “The Holdovers” narrows its scope and manages to achieve more than most of its festive compatriots.
Set in 1970, the film follows Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a grumpy old teacher at a traditional New England boarding school. After he gets stuck chaperoning the few students who can’t go home for Christmas, he forms an unlikely bond with Angus (Dominic Sessa), a quick-witted troublemaker, and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook.
Given the festive setting, one might expect a more warm and jolly tone, but in “The Holdovers,” the New England snow serves as a blanket of muted melancholy magnified by the Vietnam War, which looms over the whole film like the overcast sky. This is not the 1970 of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but the 1970 of Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens.
Mind you, the film is a comedy, and there are certainly plenty of laughs, but the drama and how it blends with the comedy are what make the film truly masterful. It’s a delicate balancing act, but when done properly, dramedies produce something greater than the sum of their genres. “The Holdovers” ropes you in with humor, only for you to find yourself more emotionally invested than giggly.
Both the quiet drama and dialogue-heavy comedy rely on strong on-screen performances, and each of the leading actors absolutely shines. Giamatti revels as a lovable curmudgeon, and Randolph seems to steal every scene she’s in. This is the screen debut of Dominic Sessa, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. He has it — whatever ‘it’ is — and could be a star in the making.
For a film over two hours and without any extensive action sequences, it is brilliantly paced. There was never a moment that felt boring or redundant. It’s not predictable, but inevitable in a way where everything seems to just fall into place.
The retro visual styling and the affluent prep school setting strongly evoke a specific time and place — even the film itself is shot to have a vintage look. All these elements put you in the characters’ world — a world of private helicopters, senator’s sons and 70s brown.
Everyone seeks and deserves love, and “The Holdovers” emphasizes this idea by asking us, not to change ourselves, but to change how we view others. Beautiful and bittersweet, it is a deserved and somewhat unconventional addition to the cinematic Christmas canon.