In “The Holdovers,” Alexander Payne marks a triumphant return to form with a sharp, witty, and heartwarming Christmas movie that resonates deeply with audiences.

Paul Giamatti reunites with his “Sideways” director as a cantankerous boarding school teacher in “The Holdovers.”

Alexander Payne makes a comeback with “The Holdovers,” a heartwarming story about the transformative power of unexpected connections. This time, Payne collaborates with screenwriter David Hemingson (“Kitchen Confidential”) to deliver a film that combines his trademark humor, understated warmth, and keen observations. Despite its holiday setting, “The Holdovers” defies expectations, offering both surprise and comfort to its audience.

When Angus Tully’s holiday plans with his mother fall through, he becomes a “holdover” at Barton, his New England boarding school, during winter break. To his dismay, his chaperone is Mr. Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), the school’s unpopular ancient history teacher. As Angus (portrayed by newcomer Dominic Sessa) navigates the holiday season alongside Mr. Hunham and the school’s grieving cook, Mary (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the unlikely trio forms a bond amid the challenges they face.

On paper, The Holdovers may seem like it could easily veer into overly sentimental territory, but that’s never been Payne’s style. With films like The Descendants and About Schmidt, he has approached subjects such as death, grief, and loneliness with a distinctly human eye and a healthy dose of humor — and The Holdovers is no exception.

This film marks Payne’s first foray into the realm of period pieces, which is surprising given how seamlessly the era’s trappings are depicted with meticulous care, right down to the design of the studio title cards that precede the film. However, the most remarkable aspect of the 1970 setting is its ability to make the film feel rooted in its bygone time, rather than merely trying to replicate it.

Reteaming after their shared success on Sideways, Giamatti and Payne showcase their chemistry once again. Giamatti’s curmudgeonly growl is the perfect fit for Mr. Hunham, a teacher whose passion for history is overshadowed by the bitterness of a life filled with shattered dreams. While playing the role of an exasperated crank falls well within Giamatti’s wheelhouse, he also infuses Hunham with a piercing humanity and a profound sense of loneliness. Through his performance, Hunham becomes as deep and layered as the snowfall outside the Barton campus windows.

In Angus, Hunham finds his match—a proverbial pain in the ass wrestling with the fallout of his mother’s remarriage after losing his father. Sessa, whom Payne discovered in a private school drama club after an exhaustive search, is a remarkable find. His portrayal of heartbreak and vulnerability is so raw that it can be painful to watch. He presents Angus to us as an open wound, an act that demands both bravery and humility to convey such pathos effectively. Additionally, Sessa infuses Angus with a winking quality, a mischievous glint in his eye that lends the character a natural humor. He navigates Angus’ shifts between reactive, hurting teenager and smart-aleck dilettante with an acuity beyond his years.

Randolph shines as Mary, equally endearing as she faces her first Christmas without her son, a former Barton student killed in action in Vietnam. Despite the privilege of Hunham and Angus, Mary tells it like it is while approaching them with an open heart. Known for her comedic chops, Randolph blends impeccable timing with a deeply moving portrayal of a woman grappling with profound loss.

The film’s trio of lost souls all yearn for connection, and as their secrets unravel, they form the ragtag family they desperately need, if only for a fleeting moment. The holidays can be inherently melancholic, with the emphasis on togetherness often underscoring painful losses. It is through this bittersweet relationship with the season that these characters find solace and connection.

The pain and circumstances of the characters in “The Holdovers” resonate deeply, tapping into a universal human experience. Their emotions, depicted in a kaleidoscope of authenticity, reflect life’s messy reality. Despite this, the film avoids self-indulgence, maintaining a balance between sincerity and humor. While Payne is known for his satire, the movie prioritizes physical comedy and witty dialogue over social commentary. The seamless transitions between slapstick humor, physical accidents, and poignant moments demonstrate the film’s finely tuned tone. If Payne’s previous works bore the acidic mark of Billy Wilder, “The Holdovers” embodies the warmth and optimism reminiscent of Capra’s films.

“The Holdovers” is sincere in its portrayal of human connection and the potential to support and uplift each other through listening and understanding. While the film is clever and humorous, it also highlights Payne’s appreciation for the power of silence. Beyond Giamatti’s character’s effective monologues, the subtle glances and gestures exchanged among the central trio carry significant meaning, demonstrating the depth of their bond.

“The Holdovers” may seem an unlikely addition to the genre of Christmas movies, especially considering its director, Alexander Payne. However, the film embodies the spirit of the season both superficially, with its holiday decor and soundtrack, and thematically, by exploring themes of belonging, generosity, and human connection. In many ways, it captures the essence of what makes a holiday film resonate with audiences. As it delivers a warm and heartfelt message about the importance of friendship and community, “The Holdovers” emerges as a potential new holiday classic, echoing the sentiment of another beloved Christmas film: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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