The Holdovers

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

Set in December 1970, The Holdovers takes a deep dive into life at Barton, a private boarding school for boys. Screenwriter David Hemingson takes inspiration from his own upbringing and his years at Watkinson, a private school in Hartford, Connecticut, though his first draft was intended as a pilot episode for a TV series. The movie title, by the way, refers to students who “hold over” on campus during school holidays—in this case, a two-week Christmas vacation. A sad predicament that casts a long shadow.

The Holdovers showcases three memorable characters, who include a grouchy teacher, a challenged student, and a wonderful staff member. The teacher is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), possibly Barton’s most hated faculty member. Paul’s greatest asset is his scholastic knowledge of ancient history that he teaches and studies daily; he could probably quote Socrates, Napoleon, George Washington, or whomever was appropriate for any occasion. All that knowledge has given him some perspective about the present and future, but it hasn’t helped his overwound personality. His strict schoolhouse approach to teaching shrouds him with a harsh demeanor that never relaxes into human warmth.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Paul Giamatti, and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers (Seacia Pavao, Focus Features)

Newcomer Dominic Sessa plays a holdover student named Angus, a Barton senior who aspires to go to college. But the stress of his family life keeps him on edge, which makes him a lonely outsider and could jeopardize his reference for college applications.

FYI, if you’ve never heard of Dominic Sessa, there’s a reason. He was just discovered at Deerfield Academy, one of several private schools in New England where The Holdovers was filmed. Kudos to Sessa on his casting victory. He seems to fill his multidimensional role with ease.

And last but absolutely not least, meet Mary, the school kitchen supervisor. If she sounds like a peripheral character, you’ll think otherwise after viewing the film. Played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mary is a large, commanding Black woman who rules the film whenever she’s on-screen. And although Mary is in mourning for her deceased son, she embodies wisdom, humor, and chutzpah, offering insight into whatever is happening, which is why I would like to have Mary’s phone number. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a Tony-nominated Broadway actress and singer, and a name to watch for in future casting.

What especially drew me to this film was Alexander Payne, who directed and cowrote one of my favorite movies, The Descendants, starring George Clooney. In The Holdovers, Payne’s direction keeps the story moving, making the most of each character amidst changing situations. Which also suggests one of the story’s takeaways: we can never really know someone until we’ve observed them over a long, wide stretch of situations. And The Holdovers is like a lab experiment. A student (Angus) and his supervising teacher (Paul), who each prefer to be elsewhere, endure two long weeks of continuous proximity and interaction, the possible equivalent of months in normal time. This endurance test could take many directions, and as you’ll see, it does, which makes this film especially worth the watch.

And finally, here’s a sign-off to parents and guardians of school children: please never let your kids be lonely holdovers.