Set over the holiday season of 1970, Alexander Payne's The Holdovers stays in keeping with his fondness for 70s-character studies rooted in the Hal Ashby tradition. The wintry Boston setting recalls The Last Detail, while its irreverent and sensitive portraits resembles Harold and Maude.
Dominic Sessa stars as Angus, a rebellious student left with no choice but to remain under the supervision of his cranky history teacher Mr. Hunham played by Paul Giamatti, in one of his finest roles in years. Da'Vine Joy Randolph completes the trio as Mary Lamb, head cook at the school grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam.
Payne develops his characters well as we get to know them, shaping the story as a dramedy punctuated with moments of character growth. Angus is a classic underachiever whose caustic wit often gets him in trouble. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn his humor is covering up a loneliness. Hunham relishes his reputation as the teacher students fear, hiding away from his own insecurities. Mary must serve as a mother figure for both, while seeking her own way forward.
Those familiar with the rebellious student and stuffy teacher making connection will recognize the story beats. The humor ranges from broad to cerebral to heartfelt. For instance, in a sojourn to a bowling alley, Hunham can't help himself in being the cliché blowhard know it all in explaining the origins of Santa Claus to two working class Joes, who stare at him blank face as he pontificates. It's a tried and true setup for a gag we've seen many times, but it works because it's keeping in character and Giamatti's seamless timing.
It's been said the mark of a good story is if you can imagine the characters living a life beyond the ending. In that case, The Holdovers is a success. There's a richness in the details, from the scruffiness of '70s Boston to the austere Prep School. Payne often sidesteps melodrama in favor of letting the vibrant setting and small moments all serve the film well.