Two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne returns to the big screen with his entertaining and crowd-pleasing film “The Holdovers” which debuted at the Telluride Film Festival on Thursday night, where he was in-person to introduce.
With a 1970s aesthetic, a sharp script by David Hemingson, and a trio of exquisite performers, the film feels like the slam-dunk Oscar contender the establishment members of the Academy can get behind.
“The Holdovers” reunites Payne with his “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti. It tells the story of a curmudgeonly instructor at an elite New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the students with nowhere to go. He forms an unlikely bond with a damaged, brainy troublemaker (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa) and the head cook (portrayed by Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
It’s hard to believe Giamatti, 56, who’s been remarkable in movies such as “American Splendor” (2003), “Barney’s Version” (2010) and of course, “Sideways,” has only mustered a single Oscar nom. That came with his turn as the ringside coach in Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” (2005). He’s long been a respected character actor, who is often overlooked because he makes his work look so effortless (see also Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe and Kristin Scott Thomas). His delivery as the hardened private school teacher begs the question — what if his character Miles from “Sideways” took a different path in life? I think he’s going to be in the serious hunt for his second nom.
In his feature film acting debut, Sessa more than holds his own against his veteran co-star. However, supporting actor is already stacked with A-list star power like Robert Downey Jr. (“Oppenheimer”), Ryan Gosling (“Barbie”) and Robert De Niro (“Killers of the Flower Moon”).
I was most enamored by Randolph as the grieving cafeteria manager, representing the heart and soul of the movie. She’s the first supporting actress contender I’ve seen so far who could give early frontrunner Lily Gladstone a run for her money.
Payne has been a favorite with the Academy throughout his career, accumulating seven nominations and two wins for adapted screenplay — 2004’s “Sideways” and “The Descendants” (2011), which he shared with Jim Burke and Nat Faxon. This time, however, Payne isn’t on the script. The film is written by Hemingson, best known for penning TV series such as “Kitchen Confidential” and “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.” Original screenplay is a viable pathway for recognition, a frequent category win for Focus Features with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), “Promising Young Woman”(2020) and “Belfast” (2021). After going home empty-handed last year with Todd Field’s critical darling “Tar,” the distributor could be looking for a roaring comeback.
In addition, this looks to be Focus’ most prominent awards contender, with the other movies from their slate — the comedy “Asteroid City” from Wes Anderson, the action-packed “Polite Society” from Nida Manzoor and the indie drama “A Thousand and One” from A.V. Rockwell — being a bit too small for major recognition.
You could also find the film in some tech categories such as production design and editing, which would help with a potential Payne directing nom.
“The Holdovers” will open in select theaters on Nov. 10 before expanding nationwide on Nov. 22.