Up until Downsizing, Alexander Payne was a wildly consistent filmmaker. Everything he’d made was at least very good, if not outright great. Then, his first real misfire happened. There was an open question as to what we’d see from him next. Well, here at the Telluride Film Festival I can report that it’s a return to form. The Holdovers is Payne back in control of his craft, which is something very satisfying to witness.
The Holdovers not only sees Payne working within some of his comfort zones, it also sees him fueled by the style of Hal Ashby. This is a lived in movie, one with personality to spare. Ostensibly a three hander, watching our trio come together is, by and large, an absolute pleasure.
Teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is roundly disliked by all at the school where he lives and works. The feeling is mutual, too. A harsh educator with no time for anything modern, he’s a true curmudgeon. Without anywhere to go over the Christmas break in 1970, Paul is chosen by the headmaster to remain on campus supervising students in the same boat. Initially, there’s a few, but after a couple of days, only 15-year-old Angus (Dominic Sessa) remains. He’s a smart boy who’s nonetheless on the verge of expulsion. a good student whose bad behavior always threatens to get him expelled. They couldn’t like each other less, but they’re stuck together for the holiday.
Also at the school with Paul and Angus is head cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. Mary is able to bond with both men individually, but they’re having trouble with each other. Eventually, things begin to thaw, allowing the three to grow close. As they do, their different forms of grief come out into the open, as does the possibilities that their futures could be more in their control than previously believed.
Paul Giamatti and Payne go together impeccably. All three performers are excellent, but Giamatti is the flashier figure. He’s exaggerated at times, but incredibly consistent. Some of his lines are absolutely hilarious, and you’re laughing with the character far more than at him. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is expertly deployed, allowing her subplot to never feel hemmed in, while Dominic Sessa is quite naturalistic. When they’re all together, they bring out the best in each other. The film soars when they’re all bonding. The cast also includes Tate Donovan, Carrie Preston, and more, but it’s about these main three.
Alexander Payne directs a screenplay by David Hemingson, though it doesn’t feel particularly far from what Payne traditionally pens. The Ashby feel is a slight change, but this is all recognizably Payne. The musical selections are all on point, the pacing is consistent (if a bit slack), and it builds to lovely ending. Plus, seeing Giamatti back with Payne (and vice versa) just feels right.
The Holdovers is going to be very well liked. Almost all of the folks who abandoned Payne after Downsizing should be back, since this is much more akin to something like Sideways. We may not see Payne quite as savage as back in his Election days, but if he’s getting more meditative with age, I’m still curious to see what he does next. Here at Telluride, we have quality cinema as Exhibit A from him.