Those fed up with the bleak midwinter will find more than a cup of Christmas cheer still left in The Holdovers, the latest from Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Nebraska). In fact the callback to yuletide a month after it’s finished seems more than a little apt for a film that itself feels quite the throwback.
The sense of warm familiarity starts to kindle right from the opening credits, as we sweep through the walnut halls of Barton Academy, a prestigious New England all-boys boarding school, at the turn of 1971. The “holdovers” in question are a handful of students who are kept back over Christmas and overseen by their ossified classics teacher, Mr Hunham (Paul Giamatti). The tale of a ragtag bunch held in confines with an old stick-in-the-mud is usually a recipe for ensuing hilarity, although the good thing about The Holdovers is it does not always stick the course you think it will.
Our focus is mainly on the relationship between Hunham and somewhat troubled student Tully (Dominic Sessa), all tousled hair and simmering resentment. We are, after all and in spite of surroundings, firmly in the era of rock-n-roll, something which the soundtrack won’t let us forget, by pumping out Shocking Blue and The Allman Brothers alongside more traditional Christmas fare by Artie Shaw and Andy Williams.
But as well as being the time for hanging loose, we are also reminded that this is also the era of Vietnam, whether by the veterans in the bar who threaten Tully’s life when he gets a bit mouthy, or by the school’s cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), quietly grieving the pointless loss of her son.
Road trips are had, parties are ruined, reputations are sullied, unlikely friendships are forged, and we all end up back where we started, although (thankfully), and in spite of it being Christmas, Payne knows better than to tie everything together in a neat bow. The acting is uniformly great, the aforementioned soundtrack is excellent and – with callbacks to cinematic maestros such as Arthur Penn and (particularly) Hal Ashby – there are member-berries aplenty for lovers of seventies cinema as well.
Too late for a bit of merriness? Not if The Holdovers has anything to do with it. Come on in and warm your hands.
The Holdovers is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema from Friday 26th January – Thursday 1st February.
Reviewed by Ieuan Jones