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Film Review: The Holdovers

FILM REVIEW
THE HOLDOVERS
Rated R
133 Minutes
Released November 10th

Director Alexander Payne loves classic films. He’s a collector of movies. Based out of Omaha, he screens movies for his friends and shows movies for his cast and crew before a shoot that he feels are fundamental to the style he’s building. Before filming started for The Holdovers, Payne screened 1970s movies such as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Klute, and Paper Moon. 

For Payne, the story and the environment are front and center. He doesn’t need to throw stars at you to distract you from the players and the story. His cinematic language focuses on expressions that suffice to take the story to a greater depth. Music by Mark Orton is simple and includes holiday carols that will tug at your memories. Payne gives the snowy landscapes of western Massachusetts free rein to envelope his characters, as he did in 2004 with the Santa Ynez Valley wine country in his most famous work, Sideways, which starred a then-unknown actor named Paul Giamatti. 

The Holdovers is shot entirely in real locations, not sound stages or sets. With Egil Bryld, his cinematographer, the team used subtle special effects to make the colorization and feel of the visuals reflect the cinematic style of the ’70s. Payne says, “I’ve been trying to make ’70s movies my whole career. But on this one, I tried to take it one step further and, to some degree, create the illusion that it was actually made in the ’70s.”

The Holdovers is the feature film debut of screenwriter David Hemingson, whose background is in television and TV movies. The setting is Barton Academy, a fictional elite private prep school in New England, supposedly founded in 1797. Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts, the model for Barton, was actually founded in 1797. Deerfield also happens to be the school where Dominic Sessa, who plays student “Angus Tully,” really graduated in 2022, and it is one of the locations for the film.

Giamatti is in his element as introspective, quirky, and cranky prep school professor “Paul Hunnam,” but the actor to really take notice of here is young Sessa. When he accepted the role of Tully, the extent of his previous acting experience was in school plays at Deerfield, and he repeatedly nearly steals scenes from the highly accomplished Giamatti. The two have great chemistry and rhythm together. 

Sessa instinctively embraces his character’s words and makes them his own. Tully is a complex teenager from a tragically troubled family setting, trying his best to remain stable and process huge emotional issues in a boarding school environment. His out-of-the-box friendship with the odd Hunnam, who has embraced his own peculiarities, allows Tully to feel comfortable with his pained psyche and his family predicament. This is a teen who has had to wrap his head around extremely dysfunctional relationships with his parents and accept a new stepfather he hardly knows. A “natural” actor, Sessa said that the hardest scene to shoot was an ice-skating scene where he had to act clumsy and fall because, in real life, he’s a skilled ice hockey player.

In his endeavor to be true to the ’70s style, Payne sets the scene at the beginning of the story with softly striking winter landscapes of the area surrounding the school, thanks to Bryld’s breathtaking camera work. The overriding theme here is how history reflects the present in a never-ending cycle, how people deeply affect each other even without that intention, how misfits can be more human than those in the mainstream of humanity, and how they often make an indelible imprint on those around them. If you’ve ever been a student or a teacher, and I can assume that is most everyone, this film will move you. 

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which has been the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people.  She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com

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