Movie review: 'The Holdovers' brings back classic life lessons, movie settings

From left, Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph are 'The Holdovers." Photo courtesy of Focus Features
1 of 5 | From left, Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph are 'The Holdovers." Photo courtesy of Focus Features

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- The Holdovers, in select theaters Friday, harkens back to bygone periods both of movies and of education. More lessons are learned outside the classroom than in it, but they are subtle lessons, not heavy handed ones.

Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is tasked with staying at Barton boarding school over Christmas break to watch over the students who could not go home for the holidays. Before Christmas Eve, four of the holdover kids do get taken in by one family.


This leaves Hunham and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whom Hunham has in his Greek history class, the Barton cook Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and custodian Danny (Naheem Garcia). Teacher Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) is local so they encounter her in town still.

The '90s had a spate of movies set in prep schools, from School Ties and Scent of a Woman to Rushmore. 1989's Dead Poets Society can probably sneak in there as close enough.


The prep school was a great microcosm for the larger world, and a heightened version of a universal experience. Almost everyone went to school of some kind, but didn't have to live there.

The Holdovers is also set in 1970 so there are no cell phones or internet to occupy the characters. They have to pass the time with each other.

Tully is the kind of smart alec that irritates teachers but wins the favor of classmates and movie audiences. The Holdovers is not Animal House so Tully is a bit more abrasive, but he wins sympathy early in the film.

Tully's mother asks him to stay at school over Christmas so she can finally go on her honeymoon with his new stepfather. Tully may have an attitude but it's hard to expect a teenager to be any more magnanimous about that request.

Hunham is magnificently pretentious. He doesn't hide his contempt for faculty superiors or his underachieving students, but can go with highbrow Greek references or lowbrow dick jokes to make his points.

Naturally, the extended confinement forces Tully and Hunham to discover they're more alike than not. The Holdovers is too classy to become the trite version of that, so the student/teacher bonding is more subtle and never quite loses its edge.


The film mildly interrogates the privilege of students who are sent to an expensive prep school and not only resent being there but look down upon both the working staff and the locals, who include Vietnam War veterans.

Nobody has a total perspective shift by the end of the two-week break, but with no classes or extracurriculars to distract him, Tully does have to own how he sees other people. Mary is also grieving her veteran son and the film shows how holidays can exacerbate grief.

The Holdovers also explores Hunham's reclusivity and cynicism. Yet, The Holdovers is in no hurry to explain its characters. It lets the viewers' assumptions linger until more information comes up, sometimes only in the background of a larger scene.

Life is like that. Answers don't come on a convenient timetable and it is mature of The Holdovers to portray that, while still satisfying the questions it raises.

The Holdovers ultimately reveals enough about Hunham and Tully to understand them and empathize with them, but not in a superficial way. There's no one incident that caused their behaviors.

If anything, The Holdovers is too unwieldy in its setup. One student's father decides to pick up his son after all, and take everyone else who can get permission skiing with them.


Tully's are the only parents who couldn't be reached to grant him permission, but it seems like there was little point introducing four other Barton students at length. The plot could be simplified so that it's just Tully staying over Christmas from the start.

Perhaps the interaction with his classmates establishes some of the dynamics between students, but that was mostly established in scenes set before the end of classes anyway.

The Holdovers even culminates in a bit of administrative action, though it is a briefer sequence than the epic hearings that conclude School Ties and Scent of a Woman. Still, it's nice to see The Holdovers fit the paradigm right up to the end.

The Holdovers really captures how life can slow down over the holidays. Combined with how insular a campus community is, stripping away the distractions proves a rewarding dramatic experience.

The Holdovers expands on Nov. 3 and Nov. 10.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.


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