Prickly protagonists can be tricky to navigate, since audiences need to connect enough with someone to invest in watching their story. The more despicable they are, the more fun or, alternately, alienating the experience can be. The true challenge is to chart a course towards likability without making it feel forced and staying true to the nature of someone who isn’t easily transformed. In his latest film, The Holdovers, Alexander Payne does a remarkable job of anchoring a winning comedy about two people who couldn’t dislike each other more.
From his first moments on screen, it’s clear who Professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is. He’s the teacher everyone remembers who looked down on his students, telling them they could be better while refusing to curb grades when half of them failed an exam. He speaks to them with a haughtiness and sense of intellectual superiority that isn’t received well at a boarding school where most students come from wealthy homes and are used to special treatment. Though he grumbles about it, he’s all too happy to accept the assignment to stay on school grounds over winter break with the five boys who have been left behind for the holidays, ready to drill them into submission when all they want is to be able to enjoy a little time off.
At odds with Hunham is Angus (Dominic Sessa), who isn’t the most obnoxious or entitled student by any stretch but still possesses a remarkable ability to irritate those he seeks to torment. The two are a match made in hell, and it feels for a while like a battle of wits where both will end up making each other miserable for eternity. The presence of cafeteria manager Mary (Da’ Vine Joy Randolph), also at school for the holidays following the death of her only son at war, shakes up the dynamic and offers an opportunity for commentary that surely voices many of the thoughts running through audiences’ minds while watching these people spend a snowy 1970 New England winter in a place that feels anything but warm and cozy.
The Holdovers represents a formidable reteaming of Payne and Giamatti, who previously worked on the ensemble-driven Sideways. They’re in excellent company here alongside two equally formidable feature debuts: Sessa and screenwriter David Hemingson. Sessa is a natural, leaning into the privileged persona of his character and slowly revealing his inner goodness and fluctuating maturity. Hemingson, who has worked on a number of television sitcoms, shows a great mastery of dialogue, particularly Hunham’s condescending insults, and an ability to capture the tone found in many of Payne’s films.
This film also makes terrific use of its period and location setting. Production designer Ryan Warren Smith presents a sprawling campus that feels at the same time boundless and stifling, appropriately dated and charming, if looked at with the right attitude. Costume designer Wendy Chuck clothes her characters in winter gear that mirrors the stuffiness they feel and reveals much about their class status and the way they see – and are seen by – the world. Many scenes feature just the three terrific main actors, and cinematographer Eigil Bryld lenses them in a way that makes them seem small among the many halls and rooms of the school and also as if this is precisely where they belong, a place none of them would like to have to call home.
The Holdovers fits very well into the body of Payne’s work, worthy of favorable comparison to Nebraska, The Descendants, and Downsizing. It’s a film that’s very easy to like despite the way all three of its protagonists greet the world with a resentful attitude, and it’s both fun and richly rewarding to watch them come to terms with why they’re so unhappy and how they might best be able to improve their realities. Hearing Hunham and Angus go back and forth and say things they know will upset the other is the most enjoyable part of this great film, and fortunately those moments are in consistent supply in this guaranteed crowd pleaser.