Saturday, December 30, 2023

Post Christmas Watch: The Holdovers (2023)

Watched:  12/29/2023
Format:  Peacock
Viewing:  First
Director:  Alexander Payne

A couple of folks had recommended The Holdovers (2023) to me, but I didn't have time to go when it came out back in November.   It's now streaming on Peacock (an underrated and inexpensive streaming service), so if you can sit through 4 minutes of commercials, you get a new movie to watch.

This fall, it was kind of interesting seeing the trailers for both this movie and Saltburn around the same time, as both were trying to reclaim a kind of movie I hadn't seen produced in a decade or so, and both occurring at elite (as in, rich people tend to go there) educational institutions and were period pieces.  I had less interest in Saltburn, and sort of raised an eyebrow at The Holdovers existing at all.  I didn't think these kinds of movies would never get made again, but it had been a while.

And, if I'm being honest, I was pretty sure I could guess the big strokes on both movies just by getting the trailer put in front of me.  But I'm not always looking for narrative novelty - sometimes execution is more important than seeing something twisted or different from my expectations.  One mistake I think we made coming out of the 90's was thinking putting a particularly dark twist on something could make it seem "more realistic" or "more important". *

Anyway, I really liked The Holdovers.  

It wears what it's going to be on its sleeve and folds it right into the film.  It just tells its audience it's going to be like one of those thoughtful, Hal Ashby-era character movies from circa 1970, pulling in the mid-20th Century media fave setting, an elite private school.   It's so aware of the audience also knowing what the game is, it starts by using the 1970's-era Universal logo/ opening, and 70's-ish graphics for Focus Features, and that's before the movie starts properly.  Throw in some folk music, an artificial film grain and washed out color to emulate 1960's film stock, and you've got a proper throwback.

The basic gist of the movie is that a reviled member of the faculty at Barton, the elite prep school that's largely the setting of the film, is selected last minute to play shepherd to the kids who can't go home for the holiday break.  He's not happy about it (though his plans included reading a stack of mystery novels) and the remaining kids aren't thrilled to have him.  They're also left with the head of the kitchen, Mary, who just lost her son in Vietnam (the film takes place during the Christmas of 1970).  Our third focal character is Angus Tully - played by absolute newcomer Dominic Sessa in what is a stellar performance.  

Tully isn't the only kid left, there's a handful more, but events transpire to give the other kids options and not sit in a cold, unheated school for the break, and that leaves Tully alone with Mary and Mr. Hunham.  Mary is played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph - who fans of Only Murders in the Building will recognize.  Look, she's just f'ing great.  And Hunham is Paul Giamatti, who never turned in a bad performance.  So you've got three good-to-great actors bouncing off each other.

Of course they live a little, learn a little and their worlds are opened by each other.  That's what this movie was designed to do.  And you won't be shocked that they slowly reveal bits about themselves that reveal they're more than you'd guess.  

Two of the three lead characters are assholes, but it doesn't ask you to forgive them when it explains why.  But it does help assholes recognize game.  And it provides our third to show that sometimes folks just recognize the game even if they don't play it.

The boarding school scenario is ripe with drama - it's a world on the edge of the real world, with issues of class and privilege, power and lack thereof.  Instructors can be capricious and cruel, students on the road to unearned success can be vulnerable and maybe learn something that will benefit them in their future lives as oligarchs.  The Help can wait in the wings for the opportunity to deliver a lesson.  There's nothing particularly new here in that respect, but sometimes - as I was saying - execution is everything.  And this movie executes.  

It really is funny, sometimes in broad strokes, and sometimes with pinpoint accuracy.  And sometimes a mix of both.  And, it can be poignant, because it knows what it's doing.

More than occasionally, the dialog can be a bit on-the-nose, the teenager sound a bit like a 40-something putting words in a teen's mouth, but even that feels like artistic license as much as anything. 


But for all that, it's remarkable that Payne feels no need to explain the ending when he did the work and the resolution is so crystal clear.  No "and here's what we learned" moment - it just unfolds.   

Further, it's almost a relief that the characters are revealed to carry baggage, but the movie doesn't expect that we're solving everyone's dark secrets and hidden issues.  I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie that let the characters be walking, shambling messes and instead of considering that edgy, or (worse) trying to swiftly fix everyone's issues before the credits (and the movie suggests multiple, overlapping problems for everyone), instead just suggests "yeah, man, people are kinda fucked up when you bother to look under the hood".

I'm not sure it's a masterclass in this sort of thing, and it's certainly doing a thing movies did in the long, long ago, but it's a welcome departure from the textbook approach to narrative and character that seems to get applied like a goo in modern film, terrified someone on film twitter was going to stamp their feet that the movie didn't do the correct thing.  It lets the characters be a fucking mess - while also acknowledging the privilege of being a mess when other folks have to keep it together in the worst of circumstances.  

My suspicion is that Sessa is going to blow up after this movie, and maybe just in time for a new era in Hollywood that doesn't require he be able to drive fast and furiously to have a career.  

* Filmmakers seem obsessed with the idea that they're going to show you something you didn't know about the world being dark and depressing like we don't have access to news.  And, sure, there's a place for it, but it also gets tired if every movie is a fucking bummer.  And from my guess looking at the trailer and the description I read of Saltburn, congrats.  You made that movie.


JAL said...

I liked this one a whole lot. I'm glad it became more widely available during the end of the year. I've not seen truly character-driven film in a long time. Keep an eye out for "American Fiction". It is much more than the trailer lets on.

The League said...

Read a thing complaining about elements of "American Fiction" and everything they were complaining about sounded *interesting* and *potentially good*. So, yeah, I'm on the look out!