It had been three weeks since I had been to a movie. Normally, I go every weekend, but the last three weeks have been devoid of anything even plausible to watch. I'm pretty flexible when I get desperate for a movie to watch, but the only other thing remotely plausible was The Marvels, but the previews just looked so stupid. So, I was excited to see The Holdovers.
The first thing to note is that it is a period piece. It starts in 1970. As a guy born before then, it had some nostalgia value for me. The second thing to note is that I wasn't annoyed at the writing. As a guy who writes and critiques fiction every day, I can't turn off my editor brain. Any bullshit writing that surfaces immediately pulls me out of a movie, so I'm happy to report that I found the writing to be quite strong. I was impressed that they dodged a lot of the tropes. This was clearly one talented person's vision, not the Hollywood focus-grouped-to-death crap that usually gets the big distribution deal.
The previews tell the outline of the story. It's Christmas at boarding school and some of the kids have nowhere to go. Someone's got to supervise them, so let's assign Paul Giamati's character. The movie is a character study of him. Fortunately, they layer in two other robust characters played by Dominic Sessa and DaVine Randolph who deliver standout performances.
Subtlety is what I loved about this script. The student-on-student hatred wasn't some over-the-top Carrie at the prom crap, just modestly hurtful and funny stuff. The school politics are just the right amount of cruel. Everyone and everything is written with nuance. I didn't always agree with the choices, but that was part of what made it interesting to me.
The movie is shot quite quietly. There are no soaring musical cues, just some period music. There isn't a thrilling pace, just a functional gait to the end of the Christmas break. In fact, it's so quiet that there isn't even an epilogue. The ending is a little harsh and upends our characters, and they don't wrap it up for us with any kind of evocative epilogue. It's a risk. Some people want it all spelled out. Some people like to fill the ambiguity with their preferences. I think it works well.
What makes this movie is Paul Giamatti. He plays this tragic-comic faux academic to perfection. His character is an irascible ass most of the time, but hilarious. As he and the kid navigate Christmas break, they layer in a few adventures that organically dip into both of their backstories which are quite evocative. So it's sort of tragic-comic as they lurch through the movie.
One great surprise was DaVine Randolph. Narratologically, she is a writer's trap in this woke world: a black woman, a cook, very fat, and wise. She's perilously close to the "Mammy" trope. Fortunately, her character is written engagingly enough that all those labels are irrelevant. She functions like the moral conscience of the movie. Ms. Randolph does a superb job and plays off Giamatti excellently.
In the end, it's a strong production well performed. I found the movie to be finely balanced between comedy and tragedy. They didn't milk the pathos. They didn't go for cheap laughs. It's thoughtful and nuanced. I recommend it to everyone..