Nostalgia is a prevalent theme in modern media, whether intentionally created or arising naturally. Examples include rewatching the TV show Girls, the reunion of the band NSYNC, the resurgence of musician Kate Bush through the use of 80s nostalgia in the show Stranger Things, a new version of the movie Fatal Attraction, a refreshed portrayal of Wednesday Addams, and another installment of Sex and the City. However, nostalgia can also be a trap. As Craig Jenkins of Vulture states in his review of Taylor Swift’s tour movie Eras, it is currently the most flashy and profitable form of nostalgia, often serving as a “retirement community” for tired minds. This retirement community is a lucrative one, as our streaming economy is filled with reboots and revisions that tap into our fondness for the past.
The widespread presence of nostalgia is what often causes it to have a negative reputation. Reflecting on the past is seen as effortless, self-indulgent, and lacking in originality. It is often viewed as a repetitive and overly sentimental nod to something that has already passed. Even when used effectively, relying on people’s fondness for the familiar can be perceived as cheap and is often used as a substitute for having something meaningful to say.
Critics are eagerly anticipating The Holdovers, a bittersweet comedy-drama from writer/director Alexander Payne that has been added to the holiday film lineup (although it was oddly released in the US at the end of October). The story follows three unconventional characters – grumpy professor Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), pessimistic teenager Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa), and grieving mother Mary Lamb (portrayed brilliantly by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) – who find themselves stuck together for the holidays at a prep school in New England in 1970.
Payne, who received an Academy Award for his work on the 2004 film Sideways, once again combines sharp wit and heartfelt emotions in his latest project. The movie is a nostalgic journey set in 1970, with the added challenge of recreating the aesthetics and techniques of filmmaking from that era. The attention to detail is apparent in every aspect, from the use of vintage MPAA and distributor logos to digitally added scratch marks. The trailer even features a deep-voiced narrator, adding to the sense of authenticity. The Holdovers convincingly transports viewers to a different time, with its color palette, use of fade-outs and zoom lens reminiscent of films made decades ago. In a world where digital technology reigns supreme, there is a tendency to equate age with quality. The film’s ability to capture the essence of a bygone era adds a sense of gravitas, making it stand out among other period pieces.
The Holdovers is a masterfully crafted film, with exceptional acting and a poignant exploration of the human experience. It challenges the idea that they don’t make movies like they used to, while acknowledging that there is still quality cinema being produced today. The film stands out in an era where quantity often outweighs quality, with its focus on original storytelling and careful attention to detail.
Successful nostalgia is not about appearance or imitation, but about creating a specific feeling. The Holdovers captures the essence of a time period instead of exploiting it. I did not personally experience the 70s; my understanding of it comes from movies, photographs, and old magazines from my grandmother’s collection. These are all imperfect and limited glimpses, lacking personal experience. While watching The Holdovers, I was reminded of my grandmother’s home, where she and Paul shared a love for a certain braided rug, alcoholic beverages, and harsh New England winters. When done effectively, nostalgia has the power to transport you to another time and place.
However, The Holdovers manages to avoid becoming a cliched tale of nostalgia thanks to its strong focus on character development. Despite their proud and standoffish nature, the three remaining teachers at Barton Academy are also prone to looking backwards. Paul Hunham, a self-proclaimed expert on ancient civilizations, often belittles his students as “hormonal vulgarians” while mourning the Peloponnesian war. Angus, a rebellious 17-year-old, carries the weight of a broken and distant family. Meanwhile, Mary, who is still grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam, faces her first holiday season alone. One particularly memorable scene involves Mary breaking down in tears at a holiday party, surrounded by alcohol and the distant music of an Artie Shaw record. Through Randolph’s skilled writing, Mary’s grief and strength are portrayed as a complex, living entity.
The Holdovers often openly expresses its emotions – one of Paul’s many passionate yet grumpy speeches praises the study of history as a tribute to humanity, acknowledging both its small-mindedness and its greatness. For him and for this film, looking back to find common ground is a courageous but isolated mission. (For what it’s worth, I tend to agree.) Payne’s melancholic perspective prevents the fear of being shallow by bringing us closer to Paul, Angus, and Mary – the characters’ personal struggles, vulnerabilities, and longing for connection or something else. The strange, aimless longing that lingers during the holidays, even for those who are dearly loved. Similar to anything centered on nostalgia, The Holdovers either captivates you or it doesn’t. However, it at least takes a unique approach by indulging in the timeless yearning for the past.
The movie, The Holdovers, is currently playing in theaters in the United States and will be released in the United Kingdom on January 19th.