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Film Review: ‘The Holdovers’ is a new holiday classic

It is not uncommon for a film by Alexander Payne to have a focus on humanity. The famed filmmaker's slew of films, such as "About Schmidt" (2002) and "Nebraska" (2013), effortlessly focus on these elements.

Famed filmmaker Alexander Payne is no stranger to portraying the "human" element in his films. His works utilizing this recurring element, such as "Nebraska" and "Sideways," earned him Academy Award nominations and various accolades.

Luckily for fans of the director's emphasis on humanity, Payne's eighth feature film, "The Holdovers," provides deep character exploration in the year's best comedy.

Set in the New England winter of 1970, the film takes place at the all-male boarding school of Barton Academy. As winter break commences, the school's notorious history teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), is punished by the school's headmaster for failing a senator's child. For his "crime," Hunham is sentenced to chaperoning five young men forced to stay at the academy during the two-week break.

Among the group of five rascals is the witty Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose winter experience was canceled after his mother's abrupt honeymoon trip. When the other four are flown to the ski slopes surrounding them, Angus and Hunham are left behind with Barton's head cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph).

The film's unlikely trio forces unique character interactions to unfold, allowing the David Hemingson-written screenplay to explore every complexity of these seemingly simplistic characters. 

Hunham is the school's mortal enemy, hated by students and faculty alike, but he manages to devolve from his strict ways through his interactions with Angus and Mary. Giamatti's magnificent performance only elevates the fact, inviting the audience to sympathize with the school's notorious anti-hero.

Giamatti's enthusiasm exudes through every nuanced portrayal of the hard-minded Hunham in the actor's first return under Payne's direction since "Sideways" in 2004. He delivers a career-worthy performance, full of clever jokes that can easily be missed, in his steady, awarded and layered history in the film industry.

The "found family" trope sees a unique spin through Angus' character, who gains two guardians in the form of Barton's left-behind faculty members. Angus is lost, losing out on the influences of parental figures due to his rocky past, and only finds his path forward through the support of Mary and Hunham. 

Sessa brings a layered relatability to the character through his emotional and physical portrayal of Angus. The role may be Sessa's very first acting performance, but he knows how to bring life and humanity to his character. The performance is one of the year's best breakout roles and will easily land Sessa many roles to follow.

Despite Sessa's charisma, Randolph is easily the film's standout performer. She steals every scene she is in, most recently seen in Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building," and "The Holdovers" is no exception.

Mary's layered personality is quietly uncovered through Randolph's moving portrayal. While she is primarily seen as focusing on providing meals for the held-over Barton members, Mary is also reconciling with the loss of her son in the Vietnam War. 

The winter and historical setting of the film brings these nuances out of the character, allowing Randolph to showcase her impeccable acting abilities to the audience through her facial expressions. Her nurturing demeanor brings the necessary heart to the film and it is only fitting that the script allows the most heartarching character to bring the positive trait in others.

The film will surely bring necessary acclaim to its three masterclasses in acting by its central trio. The film also sets a comfortable holiday atmosphere through its warm soundtrack and calmness in editing. The wintery landscape surrounding Barton also invites a reminiscent feeling to the film due to its snug cinematography.

Even if Payne is weary of "The Holdovers" being described as "cozy," the film evokes a comfortable essence perfect for the ongoing holiday season. It is easily the best comedy film of the year, even if said comedy is not as prominent as other films of the year (i.e., "Barbie").

"The Holdovers" may not be intense like other high-rated films of the year, but it is a flawless display of harsh truths and stinging zingers bundled under a thick blanket of New England's relaxing snow.

Rating: 5/5 

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