Grumpy Giamatti's Holiday Hijink
Older white man gesturing toward a decorated Christmas tree

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers" is exactly why we love movies. It takes us on a journey, immersing us in the warm and cozy, unique setting of a 1970 New England prep school, the fictional Barton Academy, and stirs our emotions along the way. This unlikely Christmas movie, starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph, is the perfect blend of humor, grief, and redemption, far removed from your typical holiday movie.

As a teenager, spending Christmas break with a professor, let alone a prickly one would be haunting. I'd feel trapped, hopeless, and abandoned, as if the world had forgotten me. This is supposed to be a time with family.

The story revolves around the cranky Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a history teacher whose arrogant demeanor makes him hated by students and faculty. Tasked with supervising the "holdovers" (students who remain at school during Christmas break due to personal circumstances), he finds himself left with Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a bright but troubled student, and Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the school's cook mourning her son loss in Vietnam. Their initial stale feelings evolve into an understanding, bonding them in a journey of growth and redemption.

Giamatti delivers what could be an Oscar-worthy performance. His portrayal is a mix of articulateness and cynicism. He's the kind of teacher who's tough on the outside but has a lot going on underneath. Giamatti's good at playing these kinds of guys – a bit awkward, a bit sharp-tongued, but still someone you can't help but be interested in. His advanced vocab is his secret weapon. He makes Hunham feel real, like a teacher you might have known, who's tough to like but hard to forget. As the narrative progresses, you understand why he's so tough on everyone.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph delivers outstanding depth in her portrayal of Mary, a mother grappling with grief and anger. Her powerful, nuanced performance shines in scenes with Giamatti's character, mixing wit with emotion. In his film debut, Dominic Sessa as Angus brings a fresh dynamic, portraying a rebellious yet intellectually curious student with a natural ease that holds up impressively against the seasoned actors.

Payne flips the stereotypes of the rebel student, snobby professor, and grounded cook. The natural chemistry between Paul, Angus, and Mary highlights their struggles with turmoil and isolation, amplified by the holidays. Together, they learn from each other's perspectives in a story about personal connection and the pain of isolation.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld brings the 1970s to life, immersing you in the cozy snowed-in academy alongside the characters. An authentic production design and simple lighting support the character-driven narrative. The film uses real prep school locations and precise, motivated shots, avoiding flashy distractions.

"The Holdovers" is a masterclass in performance and direction, avoiding clichéd happy endings in favor of a more grounded, bittersweet realism. It portrays life as it genuinely is: complicated and real with a balance of genuine laughter and tears. The message is clear: be kind to the "Grinchiest" of people, reminding us that the holiday season can be both joyful and difficult for many and that the true spirit of the season is more than just presents and time off.