In The Holdovers, Paul Giamatti plays classics professor Paul Hunham at Barton Academy, a preparatory school in New England for boys. The Vietnam War casts a shadow over the school, notably for cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose Barton graduate son died serving while trying to earn money for college. Over Christmas break, these two adults find themselves overseeing those poor students whose parents deigned to pick them up for Christmas break. Dominic Sessa’s Angus Tully is one of those unfortunate souls Included in the handful of students who are left behind. Together, these three deliver a film that is agreeably funny, gut punch serious, and thoroughly well-acted throughout. Every Academy Award nomination is indeed worthy.
A graduate of a New England prep school myself, I found the pace and set of director Alexander Payne’s (Sideways, Nebraska) depiction to be spot on, bringing back memories of time spent in classrooms, dorm hallways, and, of course, the cafeteria. While the religious aspects of the school I attended were different from Barton’s, the overall feel and expectations of the boys’ school lives meshed consistently with what I experienced. Some professors were easygoing and conversational, and some were like Giamitti’s Hunham. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, as I learned the classics in ways that continue to contribute to my life in positive ways.
But putting aside the personal aspects of similar experiences, The Holdovers appealed to me because of the incredibly authenticity with which we see Hunham, Lamb and Tully. While we don’t know exactly why Hunham is quite so bitter and uptight, there is a reasonably immediate reason given for Lamb and Tully’s state(s) of mind. Lamb is experiencing intense grief, recognizing that for all of her sacrifices and her son’s efforts, she is bereft of the best aspect she knows of her life. Faced with feeding pretentious, entitled boys day in and day out, her cynicism feels more than justified. These young men have no awareness of just how good they have it.
And yet some of them don’t have it that good. Tully may be the kind of privileged high school student that you despise. He’s also a young man intent on finding his way through puberty, by way of friendships and drugs, establishing himself and defying authority. But while those might be the kinds of ‘typical’ aspects of adolescence that we expect young people to work through, Tully is also abandoned at the Academy by his mother who is newly remarried. She ignores his cries for rescue, and instead condemns him to the homework-pushing, detention-threatening Hunham.
Whatever I thought I knew about the film – how exciting could it be to watch three people grumble their way around a cafeteria? – Payne’s delivery of David Hemingson’s story proves wildly more engrossing and entertaining than I imagined. Giamatti is fantastic as a blind-in-one-eye prof who has seen the best of life pass him by and is now inflicting his own frustration for what he isn’t on young men who he knows are stuck up, pompous, and privileged. (Except they’re not all like that … if someone would just do a little mentoring.)
Without getting deeper into the smell of pipe smoke and the look of tweed, I will say this: few films as of late have shown a more clear representation of what it means to be transformed than The Holdovers. This story is neither child savior or saintly old wizard stuff; the transformation that occurs happens because of relationship, because of community. And would you believe that the film’s hinge moment could happen while the characters are breaking bread together, unified at the same table, not as teacher, student, or employee, but as a form of family? If you think you can’t change, or that someone else is too whatever (old, corrupt, proud, etc.) to change, then take the time to sit and breathe in this beautiful story. You just might discover that the community of Barton Academy is what your soul desires. And be reminded: you can change, too.