The Holdovers (2023)
Picture this: a picturesque, snowy New England campus filled with energetic young men at a prestigious all-boys boarding school, Barton Academy, which prepares them for the likes of Cornel, Harvard, and Yale. It’s Christmas time and some of them are barely scraping by in their classics class led by the very unpopular teacher Paul Hunham, curmudgeon extraordinaire, played with exuberant pretentiousness and pomposity by the brilliant Paul Giamatti. Hunham is the type of socially-unmoored person who quotes ancient scribes with an arrogance that assumes that everybody knows or should know what he is talking about. To say that Hunham is rigid is a huge understatement and a part of this disconnect – and a source of ongoing humour in the film- is that he clearly does not possess the capacity for self-reflection that would allow him to understand why so many of his colleagues (he doesn’t seem to have any friends) see him as unbearable. An example of his rigidity is his desire to impose an impromptu exam on his groaning students for which they must study over the holiday break.
The Holdovers is a subtle, comedic gem that is also touching and yet not overly sentimental. In many ways it is an anti-holiday, holiday movie. Written by David Hemingson and directed by Alexander Payne, this acerbic comedy is set in the winter of 1970. We discover this through the wardrobes, the TV shows (the black high school cafeteria supervisor, Mary Lamb, watches episodes of The Newlywed Game), and the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Mary (played with beautiful subtlety by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) has recently lost her son in the war, one of the few black students to graduate from the school. As the holiday approaches and most of the boys gleefully flee the campus, Hunham is summoned to the office of his former student (now boss), Dr. Hardy Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman). With a bottle of expensive cognac prominently displayed on his desk, Woodrup informs Hunham that he has been saddled with the unenviable duty of supervising the holdovers over the holiday break. Hunham sees this as a punishment, and indeed he is correct, since Woodrup is fuming about the problems with a wealthy alumnus whose son Hunham failed in his class.
The initial holdovers are a group of younger and older boys including an Asian exchange student, an asthmatic white Mormon, an edgy white troublemaker, a sporty white varsity athlete, and an intelligent white outsider. Who are the holdovers you ask? Well, these poor boys are the students whose families, for one reason or another, can’t or won’t allow them to go home for the holidays. Sad? Certainly. But what makes it worse is the amplification of Hunham’s rigidity when he asserts a military style calendar on the boys that includes study sessions and outdoor physical exercise in the cold Massachusetts winter (exercise, by the way, for which he himself is clearly unfit). Hilarious moments ensue – and there are many – from the combination of Hunham’s obnoxious and overly stern approach, the boys’ grudging acceptance and sneaky defiance of his authority, and Mary’s uncowed condemnations of Hunham’s astounding insensitivity.
But it is the outsider, Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa with teenage angst and emotional vulnerability), who gets abandoned, not once, but twice. The first time by his mother and new stepfather when she makes it clear in a telephone conversation that she is prioritizing her new marriage and a delayed honeymoon over his Christmas holiday, and the second time when the other holdovers hop on a helicopter and fly away to a skiing adventure courtesy of one of their wealthy fathers. Angus’s initial sense of turmoil and loneliness (he had been expecting to fly off to St. Kitts with his parents) is amplified when Hunham can’t get them on the phone to authorize his participation in the impromptu ski trip. The result? Poor Angus becomes the last holdover, left behind at Barton with Hunham, Mary, and Danny (the black sanitation worker played by Naheem Garcia). Well, Merry Christmas!
The Holdovers follows the evolution of Hunham’s and Angus’s relationship across the weeks of their confinement together as Hunham slowly and mostly grudgingly (with Mary’s encouragement) sees the importance in making Angus feel cared for and making his holiday enjoyable instead of turning it into a succession of assignments and punishments. The film is witty, hilarious, and touching, the last especially when Hunham must rush Angus to the emergency room after he launches himself across the new gymnasium floor (a no-go zone) and onto a gymnastic vault, dislocating his shoulder. This accident ensues after a hilarious chase scene through the pristine halls of the campus’ historical buildings. Angus’s quick-thinking at the hospital prompts Hunham to go along with the lie that he is his uncle who will pay cash for the necessary medical care, so that his parents will not find out about his injury. Another sensitive moment comes when Hunham, Mary, and Angus travel to Boston at Mary’s behest. It is on that trip that Angus discovers that the pompous Hunham never graduated from university and the audience comes to understand that much of Hunham’s arrogant bravado comes from his need to overcompensate for what in his mind was a seismic failure. But Angus’s desire to get to Boston is not just about holiday fun in the city. He wants to visit his father (who he previously claimed was deceased), a man who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Hunham’s heart finally softens to Angus when he understands the dual burden of his father’s illness and mother’s indifference. But their trip and the shared hotel, also allows him to realize that Angus himself is depressed and taking the same prescription antidepressant that he does. As the film winds down, the Boston trip becomes the undoing for one of them since it was not authorized by Angus’s parents who insist on placing blame and getting one of two outcomes: Angus’s enlistment in the military or Hunham’s resignation. Will Hunham finally show some heart and sacrifice himself for Angus? While Angus waits to hear his fate, it is Mary that comforts him in the hallway outside of the principal’s office.
In the end, everyone has shifted somewhat from where their emotional journeys began. Mary’s simmering grief is lessened somewhat by the promise symbolized in her sister’s pregnancy, and Angus begins to make peace with his father’s diagnosis and his own capacity to chart the course for his life. As for Hunham, when he departs the campus, it is with his possessions – lots of books and the blank journal Mary gifted him to write his own book – as well as that bottle of expensive cognac from Principal Woodrup’s office. Take that!