One scene in director Alexander Payne’s latest movie, “The Holdovers,” epitomizes the entire film. On Christmas morning, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the usually cantankerous classics teacher at a New England boarding school in the early 1970s, summons rebellious student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) and grieving cafeteria lady Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to the mess hall for a hastily put together celebration. Gleaming with self-satisfied delight, Hunham unveils a tilted and unadorned Christmas tree littered with poorly wrapped presents at its foot.

It’s a pathetic display, reminiscent of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but it’s Hunham’s effort to turn a miserable situation into an enjoyable festival that counts. That is what “The Holdovers” is all about: making the most of the holiday season despite less-than-ideal circumstances.  

Starring Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti, in his latest collaboration with Payne after 2004’s “Sideways,” “The Holdovers” is a snapshot of a specific time and place: Christmas break 1970 at a snow-covered New England boys’ prep academy for the rich. The school’s headmaster gives Hunham, a lonely and despised teacher, the unenviable task of watching over the handful of unlucky students forced to spend holiday break on campus. Hunham’s set-in-his-ways attitude and open loathing of the boys set up a near battle of wills between Hunham and those under his command, specifically the defiant yet highly intelligent Tully.

However, what transpires is more than the classic “headstrong adult versus unruly youngster” story. It is a new spin on the traditional holiday flick set in a picturesque winter wonderland as Hunham and Tully slowly forge a complicated friendship and a mutual understanding.  

“The Holdovers” has many strengths, especially in its performances. Giamatti’s portrayal of Hunham showcases the slow melting of a stubborn snowman, one who hates his students as much as he cares for their success. Giamatti’s ability to translate Hunham’s frosty demeanor and shrouded warmth, often in the same scene, brings depth and complexity to the film’s story.

Dominic Sessa, a young newcomer to cinema, depicts Tully as a young man unable to deal with his abandonment by his family. Sessa smartly balances the line between disobedience and reasonability in his performance, an impressive debut for an actor I hope and predict we will see in plenty more movies to come.

Outside of the film’s two main protagonists, Da’Vine Joy Randolph shines as Lamb, the school’s head cafeteria worker mourning the death of her son in the Vietnam War. Randolph brings the film’s emotional core, acting partially as a moral compass as she treads the rocky road left in the wake of her son’s passing. Desperate for a connection over Christmas, the three form an informal yet caring family as they wait out Christmas before the start of the upcoming semester.  

“The Holdovers” is as funny as it is sincere and poignant. The script, written by producer David Hemingson, is filled with as many hilarious moments as there are reflective ones. Even when touching on dark subjects, such as loneliness, depression, and dysfunctional families, the script treats them with appropriate humor, allowing the film to breathe and not get muddled down in its melancholy. It would not be a true Christmas film if no joy was interwoven into the story. Furthermore, for a movie nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes long, there are enough turns and developments to keep the audience engaged.  

Payne also makes use of its setting: the early 1970s. The film features the fashions and car models of the time alongside excerpts from “The Newlywed Game” episodes. Importantly, Payne made the wise decision to digitally add film 16mm grain to the finished copy, giving the movie both a 70s setting and a 70s feel that avoids pastiche. The 70s vibe combined with the cozy romanticism of snow-blanketed New England is strong enough to raise feelings of nostalgia, even in those who were not alive during the era.  

“The Holdovers” is a welcome departure from Payne’s previous feature, the 2017 Matt Damon-led “Downsizing,” a satire of environmental solutions in response to climate change that got lost in its half-baked socio-economic message. While “The Holdovers” touches on contentious issues of its period — race, class, and the Vietnam War — the script does not linger on them for too long nor expresses them heavy-handedly. Instead, Payne focuses the story on the importance of human connection rather than his usual social satire. While “The Holdovers” is just as biting and bitter as his previous films, there is a warmth to it that brings a new element to his filmography.  

As millions put up their Christmas trees, uncover boxes of dusty ornaments, and staple cheap, multi-colored lights from Target to their roof gutters, I advise them also to set their big-screen TVs to this wonderful film in celebration of the holidays. I hope you will join me in thinking of it as not only an early Christmas gift but as a new holiday classic worth returning to in the years to come.  

Rating: Five big, beautiful, shiny Christmas ornaments.  

“The Holdovers” is playing in select theaters and is available for streaming purchase.