(NEXSTAR) — Ahead of the holidays this year, one holiday movie is not glossing over the most wonderful time of the year being not so wonderful for everyone. “The Holdovers,” the eight film by director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Sideways”), is a Christmas movie for people who aren’t interested in watching Christmas movies.
The film takes place at fictional New England boy’s academy during the semester’s winter break — and follows the complicated holidays had by three main characters: lonely teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), troubled student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) and grieving cafeteria worker Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
What follows is the unlikely trio’s journey to not have the worst time possible and perhaps, find ways to let go of what they’ve been holding on to.
Although it’s centered around the Christmas holiday, “The Holdovers” is not strictly informed by films of the genre. Both in its tone and presentation, the movie operates as a love note to cinema of the 1970s, with Payne saying in a Friday press event that films like “The Graduate” and “Harold and Maude” were aesthetic and emotional touchstones.
Payne said the film was not originally intended to lean quite so heavily into its vintage look. The final product, however, features mono sound, intentional cue marks (those black spheres that occasionally pop up in the right-hand corner of old movie frames), and a cozy film grain that feels almost touchable.
The movie’s dressings only amplify the lived-in feeling of its story and its characters, who feel ordinary — in a good way. After years of movie problems that lean toward saving the world, the unremarkable problems of the titular Holdovers feel real, and in that way, remarkable.
Giamatti (reunited with Payne for the first time since 2004’s “Sideways”) brings silent gravity to his character, a witty but unpopular classics teacher tasked with babysitting a bright but reckless student. In this role, newcomer Sessa (who says he’s currently taking acting lessons at Carnegie Mellon University) balances adolescent antipathy with a more mature melancholy that would imply a longer film career.
Meanwhile, Randolph’s Mary oscillates between effective numbness and a palpable ache for the son she’s lost, a school alumnus whose renown only serves to underline his absence. Of the three main stars, Randolph appears most poised for awards consideration.
Payne said Friday that he sought out Tony Award nominee Randolph after seeing her in 2019’s “Dolemite is My Name,” opposite Eddie Murphy. For her part, Randolph joked she “didn’t even know who this man was” until he explained he’d also directed “The Descendants” and “Sideways.”
Randolph says she believes the film is resonating with audiences because of its emotion and sincerity. While the film doesn’t veer into melodrama, it doesn’t turn up its nose at the joy the characters find along the way.
“With all that’s going on in the world, [this film] is perfect timing,” Randolph said Friday. “There’s empathy. Also, I think a bit of it is, we have a lot of holiday movies that are wrapped in a shiny holiday bow… then you look at this movie and think, ‘Oh. This can be an anthem for people who are going through a hard time during the holidays.”
“The Holdovers” is currently ranked third on Rotten Tomatoes’ 100 Best Christmas Movies of All Time list, with a 96% Tomatometer rating. The R-rated dramedy has earned a reported $6.4 million so far through a three-week theatrical expansion, according to Box Office Mojo.
When asked why he thinks “The Holdovers” is hitting with audiences, Sessa said simply, “It’s easy to watch. It doesn’t only cater to a certain group of people. Lots of people can enjoy it.”
As it’ll likely hold over in theaters for awards season, there are plenty more chances to spend a fall afternoon with Payne’s gorgeous slice of life piece and perhaps, see a future Christmas classic take its first steps.