Twelve Days of Completely Secular Yuletide: The Holdovers is a contemporary Christmas classic

With the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes having come to an end, the 96th Academy Awards are officially on track to be held next year. Everyone who knows me is very much aware of my (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with awards season. In fact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched at all to say that for me, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

From Barbie to Oppenheimer to Killers of the Flower Moon, I’ve been doing my best to keep on top of film’s leading contenders with what has seemed like weekly visits to my local theatre. But when my best friend and I went to go see an advanced screening of Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers as part of a giveaway from UBC Film Society, I wasn’t aware that in my pursuit of crossing off another Oscar contender from my watchlist, I’d be witnessing the making of a contemporary Christmas classic.

Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), The Holdovers tells the story of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a crabby classics teacher forced to stay on the campus of an all boys boarding school with troubled student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) over the holidays. Also stuck with them is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school cook and a mother grieving the death of her son in the Vietnam War.

Though shot digitally, the film feels entirely situated in the 1970s. With its speckled grain and artificial scratches, the cinematography successfully imitates the visual textures of a film camera. It evoked a profound sense of nostalgia, and I found myself longing for a simpler time long before my own years.

Where the film truly shines is in the way its ensemble brilliantly brings the script to life. Giamatti’s Paul is surly, firm and painstakingly awkward in his attempts to connect and entertain Angus. Yet it is precisely this devotion to who he is that allows the character to beam with intelligence and integrity.

In his feature film debut, Sessa’s performance as Angus is witty and incredibly sharp. Holding his own against Giamatti, he delivers each line with seasoned sensitivity, steering clear of the melodramatic flourishes that one might expect from an angsty teen.

Randolph, as Mary, paints a poignant portrait of loss. Understanding that the holidays aren't always holly and jolly for some folks, her vulnerability resounds through the screen as she tries to keep both herself and the bickering pair together.

The story of a band of misfits coming together in one another’s company is a tale that has been told time and time again. Yet what sets The Holdovers apart is its ability to take these age-old narrative conventions and refashion them subtly. It draws connections between Paul Hunham, Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and the Grinch — they’re all grumpy folks who learn how to become better people over the holidays and gain a dash of Christmas spirit. It’s clear that the film isn’t intent on exploring uncovered territory. Instead, it uses what’s familiar to bring the past back into the present.

Like the film’s characters, I found comfort in The Holdovers where I least expected it. I laughed, cried, then did it all over again. Safe to say, it’s found its place in my own Christmas movie rotation, and I hope it becomes a part of yours too!