Review by Tatiana Miranda
Movies and shows set in the 1970s have existed since, well, the 1970s. Yet, even with the acclaim of a few recent '70s-based pieces of media, such as Licorice Pizza and Daisy Jones and the Six, they have the same aesthetic representation of the era as a tacky Party City costume. This is not the case with Alexander Payne's film The Holdovers. Set in 1970, the movie centers around a group of students residing at the prestigious boarding school Barton Academy over winter break. Chaperoned by the widely hated history teacher Paul Hunham and cook Mary, there is eventually only one student remaining, the outspoken but compassionate Angus Tully.
Paul, played by Paul Giamatti, is the kind of role one would expect the late Robin Williams to portray. This is probably a result of the movie's similar setting and plot to beloved films such as Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. Much like the younger leads of those films, Dominic Sessa's character, Angus Tully, is rebellious and perhaps a bit emotionally stunted due to his family issues. Because of this, The Holdovers seems a bit cliche at first, yet the film's adherence to '70s aesthetics and film techniques makes it clear that its simplicity is meant to be an ode to the emotional dramas of the past — not a replica.
While The Holdovers is pretty standard in terms of its characters and emotional drivers, its commitment to embodying a movie both filmed and set in the 1970s makes it a masterclass in effective world-building. From the period-accurate costumes to the grainy visuals, which are thanks to it being shot on 35mm, there is not a moment where the film comes off as cheesy and unrealistic — even with the soundtrack featuring songs from modern artists such as Damien Jurado and Khruangbin.
The Holdovers feels like a classic emotional drama in so many ways, namely its comedy. The characters' deadpan deliveries and outlandish actions inject personality into an otherwise dismal film. Still, the funny interactions don't diminish the seriousness of some of the subject matter. In something that tackles subjects such as racism, classism, and mental health, humor is much needed to balance out the dramatic aspects.
Out of the three lead performances, Sessa is perhaps the standout as he breaks into film with his performance in The Holdovers. He perfectly portrays a wisecracking, tenderhearted teen dealing with the disappointment of being stranded over the holiday break. This is not to say his character isn't sometimes contradictory, as it's sometimes unclear whether he wants to excel at Barton or get kicked out. Still, his emotional outbursts cause the other characters to reevaluate their own emotions and grow as the film progresses.
Just in time for the holiday season, The Holdovers is an entertaining slice of nostalgia that is bound to be a favorite among Thanksgiving Day moviegoers. Even more than that, though, it's a testament to the creativity of Alexander Payne, and that sometimes simplicity is key.
The Holdovers releases in theaters on October 27.