Dominic Sessa gives breakout performance in 'The Holdovers'

Newcomer Dominic Sessa gives breakout performance in ‘The Holdovers’

By: - Contributor
/ 02:55 PM February 18, 2024

Newcomer Dominic Sessa gives breakout performance in 'The Holdovers'

Hunham and Tully visit a second-hand bookstore in Boston as the strict teacher transforms into a surrogate father. PHOTO CREDIT: Focus Features, Universal Pictures

“The Holdovers” opens with an old-fashioned opening credit, including a retro motion picture rating and a fake Focus Features logo. The instant bittersweet Christmas classic exudes an authentic feel because of its pitch-perfect production design and a collection of time-specific needle drops. Not only is it set in the ’70s; it looks and feels like it was shot during that decade. But what elevates “The Holdovers” is the three central performances from its lead stars.

Two decades after his critically acclaimed performance as the middle-aged struggling writer in “Sideways,” Giamatti reunites with director Alexander Payne. As in their previous collaboration, the actor takes another stab at his expertise: playing difficult men.


Sporting a fake lazy eye, Giamatti is at the peak of his powers as the cantankerous outsider Paul Hunham, a Classics teacher at a private boarding school. The film worked because he hit the sweet spot of spiteful and comical. One can empathize with Hunham because his moral compass is as clear as his spite.


It is Christmas break at Barton, and Hunham had the misfortune to supervise students left on campus—the holdovers, so to speak. But he knows this is his punishment after failing the son of a senator—an important donor—and, therefore, costing the school significant funding.

One of these students is Angus Tully, a pain-in-the-neck smart kid who is one expulsion away from military school. Acting opposite someone of Giamatti’s caliber is a remarkable feat, and first-time actor Dominic Sessa delivered a memorable turn as Angus.

Rounding up “the holdovers” is Mary Lamb, the cafeteria manager whose son, a graduate of Barton, died while stationed in Vietnam. Da’Vine Joy Randolph has amassed numerous recognitions from various award-giving bodies for her performance as a grieving mother. One could not be happier for her because her turn in “Dolemite is My Name” should have been appreciated more. Unfortunately, Randolph’s character, not her performance, is the least developed of the three.

Newcomer Dominic Sessa gives breakout performance in 'The Holdovers'

First-rate curmudgeon Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) hands out hastily wrapped presents to fellow holdovers Mary Lamb (Da’vine Joy Randolph) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa).

Payne trained his trademark mocking gaze at the sordid culture of expensive prep schools and its entitled rich brats. But since it is set during one of the most tumultuous socio-political eras in the United States, it cannot avoid politics.

The film, though, treads lightly on this matter.

If not for the presence of Mary, there is not enough reason to discuss the war, and this is precisely the reason why this author felt her character seems underdeveloped. One simply wishes there was more to her since the character revelations during a pivot in the relationship between the teacher and student are some of the most profoundly heartfelt moments in the film.


Most Christmas classics end in character redemptions, and “The Holdovers” continues the tradition. Either by the miracle of the season or the utter disappointment of spending holidays with people you dislike, our holdovers somewhat found hope and happiness.

The real miracle, though, is that a poignant film with a crackling screenplay about three unlikeable characters exists at a time when this kind of cinematic pursuit seems a relic from a bygone era.

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TAGS: Paul Giamatti

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