Focus Features

'The Holdovers' Review: If You Watch One Oscar Nominee, Make It This Holiday Scrooge Story

The Oscar nominee is a story of paradoxes with plenty of heart and melancholy.

While "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" have dominated the 2024 Oscar buzz, I will be reviewing the lesser-hyped films in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. The first on the docket is "The Holdovers," a melancholy yet hopeful holiday story about a Scrooge-esque teacher, an unruly but bright young student and a school cook stuck together over winter break at an elite all-boys academy. "The Holdovers" has received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Additionally, Paul Giamatti is up for Best Actor, Da'Vine Joy Randolph for Best Supporting Actress, Hemingson for Best Original Screenplay and Kevin Tent for Best Film Editing.

What's here is a touching story of paradoxes — a story about how loneliness can bring us closer together and lies can bring us closer to the truth. It's also about privilege and poverty and how these feelings of alienation transcend social structures. Anchored by earnest performances from its three leading cast members, "The Holdovers" nails every dramatic and comedic note, breaking our hearts and putting them back together again. While the setup is familiar and the film's track seemingly predictable at first, "The Holdovers" takes the rug out from under us near the midway point and refuses to let us regain our footing.

The whole thing has a distinctly '70s feel to it. Not just because it's set during the winter of 1970 or because it was shot in a way that gives it a washed-out, vintage look. But because this type of socially- and character-driven film doesn't come around as often as it did back then.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead for "The Holdovers"

Bah Hunham-bug

Focus Features

We're introduced to the cantankerous ancient studies teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) grumpily grading papers, muttering about how the students under his pedagogy are "philistines." And that's one of his kinder phrases for the kids. He also calls them "fetid layabouts," "snarling Visigoths" and "hormonal vulgarians." He scrunches his face when the kind-hearted Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) brings him Christmas cookies. He whistles gleefully as he hands back tests covered in Fs. And when he isn't dishing out snobby insults, he speaks almost entirely in Delphic maxims. Oh, and he's also got a litany of ailments from strabismus to hyperhidrosis to trimethylaminuria (which makes him smell like fish).

While Hunham is completely insufferable from the get-go, there are also glimmers of a strong character hiding beneath the unpleasantness. He rules with a moth-balled fist, but he's also impartial. Against the advice of the principal, he fails a senator's son despite his dad's generous donations to the academy. This leads to his punishment and the odd friendship trope that comes from characters who are completely different being stuck in the same place: he's assigned to watch the "holdovers" — the kids who aren't going home for the holidays. Not that Hunham was planning to leave school grounds anyway. Still, he'd much rather put his feet up with a good mystery novel than oversee a collection of prep school brats.

And so Hunham and the handful of holdovers hunker down for the winter. This includes Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). We instantly feel for Tully. His mother abandons him at the academy at the last second, choosing to spend time alone with his stepfather at St. Kitts. He also seems smarter than his hooligan-like peers. Kinder, too, helping a young holdover when he wets the bed.

The school cook, Mary Lamb (Randolph), who's mourning the loss of her son, is also staying for the winter. A woman of color in 1970, she's well below the level of privilege the students and families of Barton are afforded. She took her job at the academy so her son could get the best education possible. Despite his top grades at the prestigious school, she still couldn't afford to send him to college. So when his number was called for the draft, he was sent to Vietnam, where he was killed in action.

The other boys get brief introductions — enough for us to think they will play significant roles in the drama. But as soon as we meet them, they're whisked off to one of the boy's parents' luxurious ski houses. It's a fun bit of misdirection from writer David Hemingson ("Whiskey Cavalier," "How I Met Your Mother") that allows him to hone in on the three main characters, and odd grouping who, soon enough, begin to resemble something like the family that each of them has lost.

'Barton Men Don't Lie'

Focus Features

As the winter wears on, the three remaining holdovers, bound by their loneliness, help each other grow. Lamb teaches Hunham to be kinder to the kids. She reminds him that though they come from means she'll never know; they are still suffering — what good are wealthy parents if they won't even spend time with you at Christmas? Tully teaches Hunham to have fun and to put himself out there romantically. He also teaches him to develop a more lax attitude toward his stringent personal codes — primarily, that "Barton men don't lie." When Tully tells a fib that prevents Hunham from getting fired, it's the first pull of the thread that ties Hunham to his stuffy, rule-based, solitary life spent entirely at the academy. In turn, Hunham gives Tully the fatherly guidance absent from his life.

The character development is remarkable in how organic it all feels. Standout moments of humor and drama are subtle. The way Hunham spontaneously throws a football he finds on the ground — limply and awkwardly. Or the way he sprays Glade on his armpits before a Christmas party. Lamb holds her son's baby shoes for a lingering moment before giving them to her pregnant sister. And when she returns to meet Hunham and Tully, the notoriously boozy cook declines a drink.

None of them has a dramatic epiphany that completely changes their personalities to make them more likable. Instead, we're gently nudged toward context that makes them sympathetic. We learn Hunham comes from a troubled past of his own, one that shaped his hatred of nepotism. And he holds surprisingly progressive values that inform his austere teaching style — he resents that "poor kids are cannon fodder" and the "rich don't give a s**t."

A later scene shows him reciting his pretentious ancient Greek factoids for a group of men at a bar. Instead of groaning like we did at the beginning, we laugh at that kooky teacher who wants so badly to connect with the world, but just can't quite get it right all the time.

This is the true achievement of "The Holdovers." It's not so much that Hunham changes — rather, our opinion of him does.

"The Holdovers" is currently streaming on Peacock and available to rent on Prime Video.

READ MORE: The Top 10 Biggest Fails in Oscars History to Look Back on Before This Year's Ceremony