A grumpy history teacher, an angry student and a cook walk into a boarding school. They make the best film of the year. Here’s our The Holdovers review.
On an atypically frosty walk outside Waterloo station this morning, I was surprised to come across a poster for Netflix’s upcoming limited series, Griselda.
It was a very big poster. Emblazoned across the side of the BFI IMAX – which functions both as the UK’s largest cinema screen and one of London’s largest billboards – I was struck not just by the size of Sofia Vergara’s face (it’s massive) but by the realisation I had no idea what the show with a presumably massive marketing budget was about.
In fact, I’d never even heard of it. But the poster itself seemed intriguing. There was a rather serious-looking woman. In front of her was a gun – one of the shiny silver ones that people used back when you couldn’t leave the house without wearing a hat. Apparently, the Griselda of the title is Griselda Blanco – the real-life leader of a Colombian drug cartel.
“That sounds good,” I caught myself thinking. I checked the release date – it’s out next week, and, based on one poster and a cursory google alone, I’m sure I’ll give the limited series a go. The billboard has done its job.
Now imagine, for one second, a film attempting the same thing in 2024. Not only does the idea of a period piece crime drama getting that kind of marketing push seem like a pipe dream, for the average person on the street (one who hasn’t practically set up a tent in their local Picturehouse, as I have), I just can’t see the campaign working.
The problem, an alarmingly franchise-obsessed Hollywood just now seems to be finding out the hard way, is a lack of trust. Whether or not the idea that the only films getting made now are sequels and superhero flicks is true, that’s certainly become the public perception. As much as it pains me to say it, for a great many casual thing-watchers I know, the trust that the movie business is going to put out something exciting, something new, or even a good, solid story without multiversal strings attached has been almost completely eroded by years of broadly similar stuff.
For many, that realization will have come around Christmas time – one of the few times the average cinephile can reliably force a reluctant family to sit around the telly and watch a full feature without swapping over to Strictly Come Dancing halfway through. Sticking on something well-made and cosy – It’s A Wonderful Life, maybe, or the less-Christmassy but equally crowd-pleasing Titanic – it’s not long before the phrase which grinds every modern cinema fan’s teeth rears its oft-anachronistically employed head:
“Why don’t they make films like this anymore?”
They certainly don’t make films like The Holdovers. Except, to state the obvious, the fact you’re reading this review now rather than, say, in 1978 means that someone does and has. See, we got around to the film eventually.
Still, it’s a phrase which has dogged (in a broadly nice way – more Golden Retriever than Hound of the Baskervilles) Alexander Payne’s latest film since it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival last year. It’s an analysis The Holdovers seems keen for us to make. Though shot on digital, artificial grain and a spot of sonic wizardry lend it the sound and look of something we’d happily have watched during a miner’s strike.
The story, too, feels very un-2024. Set in 1970, a New England boarding school on the cusp of its winter break finds Paul Giamatti’s cantankerous history teacher left to supervise the “holdovers” of the title – those boys who find themselves left on campus over the holidays.
Among those boys is Angus, played by brilliant newcomer Dominic Sessa and his inexplicably seventies-looking face. His mother wants to spend some festive alone-time with her new partner, and so the lonely, bitter young boy is left in the care of an equally lonely and bitter old man. Joining them is the school cook – Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Mary Lamb, mourning the loss of her son in Vietnam. One wonders, not unreasonably, if these people might have something to learn from each other.
In a way though, the self-evident plot itself is unfamiliarly familiar. The Holdovers doesn’t give us much we haven’t seen on screens big or analogue and book-shaped. It has no sparkling great insight into what it means to be human, no snappy moral message, nothing that could really, from a marketing perspective, turn the picture into an “event”. What it does have, and what the movie industry used to be best at, is an achingly good story.
It’s helped, no doubt, by three of the best performances of the year (whether you consider it a 2023 or 2024 film, it shouldn’t really matter). But though Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph are never anything less than wholly believable, none seem to be aiming for realism in the modern sense. Everyone in The Holdovers talks like they’re in a movie in a manner that seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years. Emotions are heightened, monologues are artfully written and witty, and melancholia drips from every scene like the first thaws of spring. Payne’s film is unapologetically a movie in a way I didn’t know I was missing.
I could spend more time talking about the score, perfectly judged and sparingly employed to give moments the maximum possible emotional weight. I could talk about the script, packed with lines I hope one day make it into the invisible canon of movie quotes everyone knows whether they were born when the film was released or not. I could mention that it’s funny, really, properly funny in a way I’m worried the review so far hasn’t given even a cursory mention. But there’s really not much point – you’ve heard all that stuff before.
What I will say is that I love The Holdovers. I might even be in love with it. It’s a huge, sweeping waft of cinema, epic in its tiny scope and stuffed with characters at once intimately familiar and that it feels like we haven’t seen in an age. It’s nostalgia personified, acting and music and story served up on the special plates you only get out for Christmas.
In an era where flailing Hollywood executives spout the logic of making films into “events” to drag a nonplussed public back to the cinema, The Holdovers is a stunning reminder that the movies can be so much less. This film is never going to start a TikTok craze, a spin-off series or a mass exodus to the multiplex.
It is, however, a Movie. Before I saw it, I thought I’d seen plenty. Now, I’m not so sure. They just don’t make films like this anymore. Now I’ve seen it, I’m worried they never will again.
The Holdovers is in UK cinemas now.