Christmastime is often a time of joy and holiday cheer, but it can also serve as a depressing reminder of the people we are not with. In Alexander Payne’s new film “The Holdovers” — which screened at The Paramount Theater during the Virginia Film Festival Saturday — Angus Tully, played by newcomer Dominic Sessa, finds out he cannot spend the holidays with his mother. Instead, he has to stay at his boarding school over the holiday break with his unrelentingly headstrong history teacher Paul Hunham, played by Paul Giamatti.
“The Holdovers” fully commits to a 1970s pastiche and successfully pulls it off. Producer Mark Johnson — who did a Q&A following the screening — says the filmmakers wanted the film to not just feel like the 70s, but to also look like it was made in the 70s. From the MPAA rating shown at the start of the film to the pops and crackles heard in the film’s sound design, there were many intentional ways they were able to achieve this.
“It was a period of filmmaking in which there were a lot of independent, very iconic, classic directors,” Johnson said. “We wanted to see if we could make something that looked like it belonged to that era.”
Giamatti and Sessa’s performances play off each other throughout the film. Much of the film’s humor comes from Paul’s hardheadedness clashing with Angus’ rebelliousness, like the scene where Paul chases Angus around the hallways of the school, ending in a bad injury for the boy.
Not only do the two actors carry the humor of the film, but they also carry a lot of heart. From the start, it is clear Paul and Angus do not want to be with each other. However, as the film progresses, they each realize how alone the other is. Angus has a mother who made him stay at school during the holidays, while Paul has been on his own since he was 15 years old. As their characters unexpectedly warm up to each other in the cold weather, the actors brilliantly portray this special connection and understanding they have with each other.
Sessa had never acted in front of a camera before this film, and Johnson said he was impressed by his debut performance.
“It’s remarkable that somebody had never acted on film before,” Johnson said. “He was, from the very beginning, so comfortable.”
Da’Vine Joy Randolph compliments the two main actors and even steals a few scenes. Her character, Mary Lamb, also feels the Christmastime blues, as she had recently lost her teenage son in the Vietnam War. Despite this tragedy, Mary embodies kindness and compassion, especially when Paul gives Angus an overly hard time. Randolph perfectly conveys this sense of compassion amidst immense heartbreak.
Meanwhile, the character Paul is fascinated with ancient history. Throughout the film, he makes countless references to ancient Greece and Rome and explains to Angus the importance of understanding history as a way to inform one’s understanding of the present.
However, when Angus tells Paul — in a devastating and well-acted scene from Sessa — about his fears of amounting to nothing and ending up like his absent father, Paul has a change of heart. He surprisingly responds by telling Angus that history does not dictate his destiny. Moments like this exemplify the stellar character development prevalent in the film’s screenplay.
“The Holdovers” is bound to please crowds during the holidays with its distinct 70s feel, heartwarming performances and hilarious moments. It understands its characters — their struggles, their desires, their insecurities — in a deep, effective way.
When asked if he thinks of the film as a Christmas film, Johnson said it is hard for him to think of it as a Christmas film and not something much bigger.
“You've got three characters lost in a way, and all of them orphans in a way,” Johnson said. “I don't know exactly if it is a feel-good film, but I think it does speak to some of the grander things about the human spirit.”