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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Warmth amidst the cold: A review of “The Holdovers” (2023)

“The Holdovers” (dir. Alexander Payne) has small tastes of the usual yuletide kitsch you’d expect from a holiday movie, from touching moments about the magic of the season to slapstick gags accented by crooked Kevin McCallister-style grins. It likewise plunges viewers into a nostalgic 70s aesthetic, complete with a layer of crackle over what should be crisp digital footage shot on 2023 cameras. Despite this, it feels more befitting of a screening amidst the depressing depths of January due to its sensitive reflections on loss and loneliness. 

Three characters grapple with these themes as they “hold over” at a boarding school. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is a delinquent student, acting out in reaction to his mother’s remarriage and her leaving him at the school over the holiday. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is Tully’s classics teacher who finds meaning in insulting and harshly grading his students. He does this to make up for his isolated lifestyle, one reinforced by the students and teachers alike taunting him for his various physical conditions behind his back. Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the manager of the school’s cafeteria, has just lost her son Curtis to the Vietnam War.

The pivotal focus is on Paul and Angus’s relationship, which begins with mutual disdain. The comments they lob at each other are wickedly funny, but they go on to develop a sort of surrogate father-son bond. On top of this, in a horrifying revelation, Paul begins to see himself in Angus. The cynicism that Angus embodies is a budding form of what would become Paul’s godless fatalism. “For most people,” Paul explains, “life is like a henhouse ladder: sh*tty and short.” His failures in his academic pursuits and love have doomed him, by his vantage, to a hell of broken dreams that he’s forcefully content with. In reality, this moment outside the classroom is when Paul must become a real teacher; he must talk Angus out of transforming into him later in life.

My original qualm with “The Holdovers” on my first watch still holds up: there’s not enough of Mary. While Giamatti and Sessa were excellent, Joy Randolph hit a home run here. She winces through the awkward, well-intentioned sympathies given to her and tries to tell jokes despite her unfathomable grief. Perhaps the story’s structure is less triangular and more parallel: as Paul and Angus fight, Mary tries to deal with the literal ghost character of her son. She refers to him at times as if he were still there. We cut to a picture of him in uniform, with a look of austerity and hope, several times. He dreamed of getting into college on the GI Bill after he was drafted. Her story entails coming to terms with the stifled voice of that dream, of accepting the silence of his death. Sadly, as the third act promises us a trip to Boston, Mary is dropped off in Roxbury to spend time with her pregnant sister. We get one or two small sequences of her day spent with her family, but don’t get the dialogue; they talk and laugh, but we hear nothing. In some sense we aren’t privy to it; her story begins with silence and resolves with silence, though of a different nature. Still, the movie left me wanting more of her.  

The question I’ve seen begged in other reviews is why “The Holdovers” feels necessary now. It doesn’t look back on its period from the present so much as it lives and breathes it. The key lies in Paul’s explanation of the past: “There’s nothing new in human experience, Mr. Tully. Each generation thinks it invented debauchery or suffering or rebellion, but man’s every impulse and appetite, from the disgusting to the sublime, is on display all around you … You see, history is not simply the study of the past. It is an explanation of the present.” On the surface, we hear echoes of how we refer to the state of the world in how these 70s characters think about it, right down to Paul stating that “The world is on fire.” He would have little frame of reference as to how literal that statement would become in 2024, but his description is apt. They had a war in Vietnam; we have new wars going on in Palestine and Ukraine now. No one seems to have learned their lessons; hatred and violence remain the norm. The past explains the present through its familiarity.

Then again, this is the type of cynicism that Paul realizes threatens Angus’s life. The world is on fire, but “The Holdovers” gives us another commonality with the past that we could learn from: human warmth and understanding. Now I threaten to veer into holiday sentimentality myself, which the film mitigates by wordlessly allowing its empathy to exist. It never points to how much these characters need each other, but we see it in their shared humor and conversations. History is a story of constant loss, the fall of the ancient civilizations that Paul teaches and identifies with. But it’s also a story of human resilience, family and love. That also explains why we’re still here at this moment together.

Rating: 4.5/5


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