December 22, 2023

A film equivalent to a long hug encapsulates the Christmas spirit. The Holdovers review

Anatolii Mishustin in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Rating: filled star filled star filled star filled star filled star

Article link copied.

slide image

Paul Giamatti in the Holdovers

Picture: Focus Features

This holiday season marks the first year in which I will not celebrate Christmas or New Year in the comfort of my home in Ukraine.

And it’s a lingering feeling of dissonance in the back of my mind that reminds me that it’s all different now, and I won’t see my grandparents, my sister, my cat or any other sentimentality and important person which built up a schema of cheerful Christmas holidays in my psyche.

I’ve noticed how near the Christmas holidays people tend to split into two camps. In the first camp, they are overflowing with festive spirit and anticipation gulping hot cocoa and rewatching their favourite Christmas specials. The second one, they are melancholic about time slipping outside of their control or the fact that they don’t have that festive spirit in them.

And this year, with all this in account, I’m in the middle, also feeling like I’m holding over.

Hollywood veteran Alexander Payne’s most recent picture, The Holdovers is a film equivalent to a long hug from a friend one has not seen in ages.

With the most important holiday of the year in the centre of it all, it is a homage to the 1970s – with its crackling grainy film stock and vintage studio credits, it immerses the viewer into this little snow globe with a story of three solitary souls finding an unlikely family bond over Christmas vacation in Barton private school.


The story follows a pretentious high-morale ancient history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who is punished for failing a student by being chosen to look after a handful of students who are left at school over the Christmas break.

In this The Breakfast Club setup, Hunham forms a bond with a witty erratic troublemaker Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose mother gave up on him at the last moment, leaving him on the schoolground over the break. The school’s head cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), is also holding over as she has recently lost her son in Vietnam.

Payne is quite masterful in this dramedy setting. There’s a hypnotic effect to his camerawork and decorations, sometimes delivering perfect Wes Anderson shots and colour tones.

The story of three unlikely individuals finding a family bond in uncertain circumstances is medicine for a broken heart – and it is also important to mention that the film delivered one of the most funny scenes in my recent memory, one which got me gasping for breath from laughter.

With its emotional warmth and sentimentally cheerful ending, The Holdovers still touches on severe topics of grief and depression - and does that quite well.

The character of Paul Hunham lets Giamatti shine – his portrayal of an emotionally shut-off, wall-eyed professor is nothing short of perfect. And Giamatti’s delivery brings a certain unique layer to the character, even though the poetic justice of a person stuck in the past teaching history is more than satisfying on its own.

As a young newcomer, Dominic Sessa knocks it out of the park with his performance, going toe-to-toe with Giamatti and coming off so naturally talented it’s almost uncanny.

All in all, the pathos of The Holdovers worked, bringing that fuzzy feeling which is usually associated with Christmas festivities. The film is sentimental and, at times, utterly corny, but there’s a genius in it which makes up for it as one of the best films of the year.

It has everything to become a future Christmas classic – and I believe the world needs something like The Holdovers now.

Written by:


Anatolii Mishustin

Film critic

Kyiv, Ukraine | Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hailing from Ukraine, Anatolii was born in 2006 and now resides in Amsterdam while getting his diploma. Moving to the Netherlands was a decision first and foremost motivated by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Anatolii keeps his hand on the pulse of modern media and underground culture, that’s what grows his interests and ambitions each day. He joined Harbingers’ Magazine in 2023 to challenge himself in this area to explore cultural journalism, and quickly established himself as the lead film critic for the magazine.

His work also secured him an invitation to the first edition of the Harbinger Fellow programme with the Oxford School for the Future of Journalism.

In his free time, he enjoys basketball, watching films, and playing video games.

Anatolii speaks Ukrainian, Russian, English, and is learning Dutch.

Edited by:


Megan Lee

Culture Section Editor

Hong Kong | United Kingdom


Create an account to continue reading

A free account will allow you to bookmark your favourite articles and submit an entry to the Harbinger Prize 2024.

You can also sign up for the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.