Reel Talk: We’re not over ‘The Holdovers’


With “Barbie’s” recent Oscar snub and all of the recent media buzz surrounding Barry Keoghan’s obscure acting choices in “Saltburn,” there has been far less attention given to another film that held its own in the box office this year. This winter break, I took a trip to the movie theater to watch “The Holdovers,” and I have since then added it to my list of annual Christmas movies to rewatch.  

Directed by Alexander Payne, the movie follows Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), a teacher at a prestigious all-boys boarding school in New England as he chaperones a group of five students who are staying on campus over the holiday season. The school’s cafeteria manager and head cook, Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), also stays behind. 

This brief synopsis was all I knew about the movie’s plot before I went to see it myself. But as someone who favors movies that can be placed into some sort of “slice-of-life” meets “coming-of-age” category (i.e. all of Greta Gerwig’s directorial work), I figured it was right up my alley. In this age of tired Hallmark flicks, I was also interested to see a new spin put on the traditional Christmas film. Thankfully, I was not disappointed with what I watched. 

To me, the genius of the movie is that from its description and title, you expect an entirely different story. For the first 20 minutes or so, the plot moves in the direction of something à la “The Breakfast Club” — a misunderstood, rag-tag group of students finds unlikely friendship due to their forced proximity. However, this assumption is quickly abandoned after an interesting turn of events leaves troubled Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa) as the only student left under Hunham’s close watch. 

After the former ensemble cast was reduced to this largely three-character dynamic, the movie’s tone shifted into something more heartfelt. The audience watches as Hunham and Tully abandon their preconceived ideas about each other as student and teacher, respectively. During the two weeks that they spend together, they both shed these titles and begin to connect as just two people. At the same time, Randolph’s character depicts the grief that so many people silently deal with during the holidays, having just lost her son in Vietnam.

 With Hunham’s reputation as the most curmudgeonly teacher on campus, Tully is at first hesitant to accept any of his small acts of kindness. It’s not until Hunham agrees to take him on a “field trip” to Boston that Tully starts to let his guard down. 

Giamatti skillfully depicts how his character sees a younger version of himself in Sessa’s. That is, he was once also a bright student with potential who could not seem to stay out of trouble. A particularly poignant scene shows Hunham realizing that Tully takes the same antidepressant that he does. While this commonality is never discussed between them, it keys the audience into the tenderness that becomes the core of the film. 

The movie’s charm doesn’t come from its reliance on flashy ’70s visual aesthetics, which create cinematic-induced nostalgia of a “simpler time.” Instead, it is the snapshot of these three characters accepting vulnerability that left me thinking about the movie for days. Watching this movie is like witnessing three people form a core memory in real time. It’s the kind of movie that feels fitting to watch in a theater surrounded by strangers because if nothing else, it’s human. 

Even though he is the teacher, Hunham is just as much of a “holdover” as Tully is. He was given this unfortunate assignment to play babysitter (by a former student of his, no less) because he doesn’t have any loved ones to go home to during Christmas either. This loneliness becomes another key component of the film — even though neither character expresses their need for companionship outright. Instead, this unspoken truth is embraced on screen without direct explanation. The absence of elaborate cinematography or plot allows for the series of events that strengthen their relationship to be taken in by the audience. 

When Hunham runs into a former classmate at Harvard while in Boston, Tully unhesitatingly pretends to be his nephew so that he doesn’t appear to be without a family. This scene, along with so many others, reveals their growing dependence on one another. Hunham wants to help Tully get his life on track because his life didn’t turn out how he wanted it to. Tully wants to help Hunham work towards accomplishing his goals. Their mutualistic relationship is heightened against the backdrop of their shared despondency during Christmas time. 

What truly makes this film encapsulate the holiday spirit is the idea of finding a chosen family. Lamb, Hunham, and Tully, while forced to spend time together at the beginning of the movie, end up forming an unexpectedly genuine bond. Tully’s biological mother makes her singular appearance at the end of the film. Her absence over Christmas time juxtaposes the love and care that Randolph’s character provides Tully to fill his mother’s void.

In short, I’d recommend this film to anyone, for any time of the year. Watch it with someone you love and tell them why you do after the credits roll. 


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