By Vanessa Huang
Is there anything quite like Christmas? Merriment shields us from the harsh winter. Children revel in Santa and presents; those more aged cherish the rare familial gathering. It’s the most wonderful time of the year – or so they say.
Perhaps not for the ‘holdovers’ at Barton Academy, a preppy New England boarding school for boys, with director Alexander Payne placing us here in the winter of 1970. Those with nowhere to go for the holidays are to remain at the school, wandering the cold and draughty halls and awaiting the advent of the new year. Left to this dismal fate are stern and cantankerous history teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti), brooding teen Angus (Dominic Sessa), and school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), bereaved after losing a son in the Vietnam War.
Somewhat predictably, our holdovers embark on a series of wintry adventures: field trips, holiday parties, hospital visits. Vulnerabilities are shared; animosity fades. And it’s a well-worn tale: the band of misfits morphing into a found family of sorts. One might say that Payne, known for his irascible misanthropes (Sideways’ Miles Raymond, for one), would never dare be that sentimental. It’s true in one sense – his hallmark offbeat humour is almost imperceptibly suffused with warmth. And yet it’s drippingly sentimental in another, Payne’s retro-inspired flourishes throughout the film an undoubtedly misty-eyed endeavour (“they don’t make them like they used to”).
The Holdovers has all the makings of a new festive classic, destined to be replayed around the fireplace with the family. But maybe it’s also for the lonely souls during the holidays – a salve for the heartache of a Christmas alone.