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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College's student newspaper

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College's student newspaper

The Berkeley Beacon

Alexander Payne transports and transcends Boston in “The Holdovers”

Photo: Clara Faulkner

Against the charming backdrop of a New England boarding school, Barton Academy, a group of attired young men discover themselves lingering like snowflakes during Christmas break. Their unexpected extension introduces a captivating dynamic as they navigate the guardianship of a commanding and stern teacher, who may be more relatable than anticipated. 

Amidst the Christmas break, the movie proves that possibilities are endless. Director Alexander Payne succinctly captures this sentiment by suggesting that in “The Holdovers,” anything and everything can unfold. At Somerville Theatre, where a scene from the film was shot, Payne delved into the intricacies of how and why the movie conveys its message during a Q&A session.

“Our whole vibe was that we didn’t want it to feel like a period movie,” Payne said in a Q&A. “We wanted it to feel like a contemporary movie made in 1970.”

My initial impression of the trailer for “The Holdovers” led me to believe it would just be another typical New England Christmas film. Despite this assertion that the movie would not move me to tears, I could have sworn one trickled down my cheek by the movie’s end.

The film plot follows Angus (Dominic Sessa), a 17-year-old student with an old soul and a rebellious spirit, grappling with a fractured and cold family. He finds a connection with Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is grieving the death of her sole son, Curtis, in Vietnam and navigating her first set of holidays in solitude. 

An unexpected connection blossoms as the holiday season envelops Angus, Mary, and Paul in shared experiences. They discover new dimensions in their relationships, giving rise to moments filled with warmth and heartfelt connections that make this holiday special.

In a particular moment of the film, a combination of alcohol, an Artie Shaw record, and the isolating warmth of a festive gathering brings Mary—as well as the audience in the theater—to tears. In Randolph’s skillful portrayal, Mary’s methodical sorrow and resilience become a vividly alive, ineffable entanglement. “The Holdovers” leaves audiences with a newfound gratitude for their family this holiday season.

Actor Paul Giamatti skillfully embodies the character of Paul Hunham, the teacher overseeing the children during the break. In a nuanced performance, Hunham manages to evoke a range of emotions from the audience. His portrayal invites sympathy for the character’s challenging situation and fosters an understanding of the complexities within Hunham’s persona. 

As the narrative unfolds, Giamatti’s ability to convey Hunham’s internal struggles and external pressures becomes increasingly evident. The audience is not merely witnessing a character on screen but is instead invited to empathize with the intricate layers of his past and present.

Throughout the film, Payne skillfully navigates the dynamics of his young actors, granting them creative freedom while retaining the endearing charm of youth. Despite delivering a darker narrative with minimal holiday cheer, the story remains relatable and well-executed.

The film’s most heartwarming moment occurs in its final scene, a poignant farewell between Hunham and Dessa after their journey during Christmas break. Their goodbye is uniquely crafted to suit the characters, and Payne skillfully conveys the moment’s awkwardness and relatability, creating an almost unspoken connection between the two.

“Really, they’re saying I will miss you, thank you, and I love you,” Payne said.

“The Holdovers” storyline reveals its core—Hunham’s impassioned yet sincere monologues praise the pursuit of history as a tribute to humanity, celebrating its trivialities. Delving into the past to discover what binds us together is portrayed as a heroic albeit somewhat solitary undertaking.

In shaping the movie, Payne adeptly weaves aspects of bygone eras with a captivating, fresh storyline. Though I didn’t experience the 70s firsthand, the film’s intricate details transported me as if I had.

Beyond the film’s storyline, the cinematography’s dynamic use of color takes center stage. Having previously earned an Oscar for the 2004 film “Sideways,” a delightful blend of wit and emotion, Payne embarks on a dual mission steeped in nostalgia. 

“The Holdovers” not only captures the essence of 1970 with a realist’s touch but also intentionally crafts a visual aesthetic that mirrors the filmmaking style of that era. It skillfully transports the audience to cherished corners of Boston, creating an immersive sensation of strolling alongside the streets with the actors. 

As the final credits rolled and the theater curtain descended, I glanced at the audience, witnessing them rise to their feet with enthusiastic cheers and a thoroughly deserved standing ovation.

“The Holdovers” is more than a Christmas period film; it’s a journey through time, a celebration of human connection, and a testament to the power of storytelling. As the final scene fades, the film leaves an indelible mark, inviting reflection on the intricacies of the past and the enduring bonds that connect us all.

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About the Contributor
Clara Faulkner, Managing Editor and Living Arts Editor
Clara Faulkner holds dual roles at the Beacon, serving as both the Business Director and the Living Arts Editor. Before taking up these positions, she showcased her expertise as an assistant editor, specializing in living arts—a field she is deeply passionate about, driven by her love for pop culture and entertainment. Aside from her editorial work, Clara actively engages in multiple campus organizations, including SPJ, CPLA, WECB, and AEPHI. Moreover, she takes on the role of marketing director at Emertainment. Beyond her writing endeavors, Clara delves into the realms of culinary exploration, cinematic indulgence, and language acquisition, constantly seeking new experiences and knowledge.

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