By Cady Inabinett, Editor in chief
Maybe it’s just the Hallmark industrial complex, but do you ever feel like every Christmas movie you watch kind of feels the same?
In the coinciding ages of cable TV and streaming, quantity seems to constantly be conflated with quality—a phenomenon that feels especially apparent around the holidays. The market is so saturated with straight-to-small-screen holiday releases that almost none of them are given time to breathe. Perhaps nothing makes me feel more like the magic of Christmas, and of art, is dead quite like the fact that the Hallmark channel has been premiering nearly-identical holiday romcoms every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night since mid-October, and will continue to do so until Christmas Day.
I feel like it’s been a while since a real standout, instant classic type of Christmas movie has been released. Something with the staying power of “Home Alone” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
But that’s exactly what “The Holdovers” is—an instant classic. Director Andrew Payne’s new-retro entry into the Christmas movie catalog is the embodiment of a Cat Stevens song; somehow the perfect slice of joy and cynicism, setting it apart from the rest.
“The Holdovers,” set at a preppy Massachusetts boy’s boarding school in 1970, follows as a curmudgeonly, widely-unliked teacher Paul, played by Paul Giamatti, who has been left to chaperone students who are unable to go home over the holiday break. As campus vacates, he is left with only two compatriots: the incredibly smart but constantly troublesome student Angus, played by Dominic Sesa, and the school’s head cook Mary, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is reeling from the recent death of her son in Vietnam.
What ensues is pure, unadulterated movie, specifically Christmas movie, magic. As the three characters spend more and more time together, they each begin to lower their guard—opening up to each other and to the audience in a way that’s truly satisfying to watch. As they get into misadventures at the school’s abandoned campus, at a holiday party and on an impromptu trip to Boston, you can’t help but to start rooting for characters who were insufferable at the beginning of the film.
It’s hard to select a standout performance from “The Holdovers” because each member of the core cast brings their A-game. It’s fitting that Giamatti and his character share a first name, because Giamatti encapsulates the role of a reluctantly-caring, spiritedly-grumpy teacher and caretaker so well that I forgot I was watching someone act for most of the film’s runtime. Randolph hits every high and low note of her performance seemingly effortlessly. As for Sesa, it’s hard to believe that this is his debut performance as he takes on this Holden Caufield-esque role perfectly—I foresee many more stellar roles from him in the future.
Equally as mind-blowing is the 70s affect the film has taken on. Visually, “The Holdovers” has all the hallmarks of celluloid film—from grain to gate weave. I was surprised to learn that the film was shot entirely digitally. The post-production attention to detail really sells the film’s commitment to making a new, old movie—utilizing all the modern tools at a filmmaker’s disposal to create a final product that feels vintage and classic, while also being refreshing and exciting.
Just as integral to building the film’s timeless, vintage feel is its soundtrack. The soundtrack brings together both old and new artists, as wide-ranging as Labi Siffre and Khruangbin, alongside appropriately introspective tracks from composer Mark Orton. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I enjoyed the soundtrack even more—I’ve caught myself revisiting it several times already.
But, ultimately, what makes “The Holdovers” a classic that I can see myself revisiting for years to come isn’t all its technical mastery; it’s the fact that the film feels like a respite from the deafening Christmas movie white noise. This film is not overtly idealistic, romantic, or heartwarming—categories that it feels like so many Christmas movies fall into—though it does have elements of all three. Instead, “The Holdovers,” with its unlikely friendships, occasional gloom, and somewhat cynical yet earnest humor, feels so much more refreshing—so much more real. It’s a breath of fresh, cold, Massachusetts air this holiday season.
Cady Inabinett is the editor in chief of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She enjoys reading, watching movies, caring for houseplants and generally just being pretentious in her free time.