Seacia Pavao/Focus Features
TORONTO, Canada—There’s no comprehending the present without understanding the past, and yet yesterday need not dictate today or tomorrow—a dynamic that stands at the heart of The Holdovers, Alexander Payne’s humorous and touching period drama. Harkening back to the ’70s and his own triumphant collaborative relationship with Sideways star Paul Giamatti while simultaneously saying something fresh and funny about loneliness, kinship, and sacrifice, the director’s latest is his finest work in more than a decade, and proof that, as his characters learn during the course of their oddball odyssey, the future remains bright so long as the path that led to it is clearly illuminated.
Showing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Holdovers is set in 1970 and assumes the tone and style of that era, from its opening credits (and studio logo introductions) to its grainy visuals and cornucopia of formal devices, including omnipresent transitional fades and slow zooms across rooms and through city streets toward (and, in one amusing instance, away from) characters. Employing Damien Jurado’s “Silver Joy” and Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” as mournful musical bookends for his tale, Payne overtly channels the cinematic feel of the decade. At the same time, he crafts a distinctly evocative Yuletide atmosphere, his action set during the chilly, snowy final two weeks before 1971, and his soundtrack filled with holiday tunes whose joyfulness is tinged with a particular brand of sweet Christmas melancholy.
The Holdovers initially ensconces itself at Barton Academy, a fictional New England prep school populated by the spoiled children of the rich and powerful. It’s a place that caters to, and perpetuates the privilege of, the elite, and the only individual it employs that isn’t interested in genuflecting to them is Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a harsh and inflexible ancient civilizations teacher who describes himself as an “ascetic” whereas everyone else might simply call him an asshole.