Holding Over for the Holidays

Holding Over for the Holidays December 11, 2023

The Groton School, one of the campuses used for the fictional Barton School
Source: Picryl
Public Domain

“Holding Over,” I gather, is what boarding schoolers call getting stuck on campus during a break. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers (2023) concerns two people in just that situation: an ancient civilizations teacher named Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and a kind-hearted rebellious student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Bleak as the premise and the wintry weather of the Christmastide Massachusetts setting may be, this movie is a heartwarming, energizing watch, a tale as old as time: two people who can barely stand each other united by circumstances, learning about themselves and the world along the way.

Summarizing the plot really doesn’t do the film justice. The beats are familiar: rambunctious escapades frustrated by a dour disciplinarian, self-discovery through shared suffering, and the light comedy that naturally arises from two broken people existing through uneasy, though charming, friction. What makes The Holdovers work so well (and isn’t this always the case with art?) is the attention to detail, to the psychologies of the character, made apparent through framing and presentation, rather than played like load-bearing beams in a yet-to-be-flipped house.

Busy (?) as I am, one example should suffice. The Barton School’s kitchen manager Mary Lamb (ha-ha), played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, has just lost her son Curtis to the Vietnam War. The school’s staff is mostly Black, and Mary’s beloved child only gained admission because his mother managed the kitchen. Short of funds, Curtis enlists and dies, a fate not to be shared by anyone else at Barton. Anyone else, that is, except Angus, whose troubled academic record has him heading for military school should he be kicked out of yet another school.

Curtis’ fate raises the stakes for one of our two main characters; it would be easy enough to leave it there. But Payne ensures Mary substantial screen time. We see her grief in small things: drinking alone, smoking incessantly, watching TV in the dark by her lonesome. And yet, these moments of sadness prove invitations for Paul, whose own loneliness and non-elite background draw him to someone otherwise overlooked or condescended to by students and teachers alike. Midway through the film, Mary breaks down at a Christmas Party, finally unable to bear the weight of her loss, the death of her only son, whose academic success and drive were cut short by her own financial insecurity. Still, she remains strong, a real person, one who offers hard-nosed advice as she chops countless vegetables to feed legions of the ungrateful wealthy. Mary’s fully fleshed character arc punctuates, undergirds, emphasizes the other characters, their needs and developments, all while she undergoes a story all her own.

She shares drinks with Paul, who is also a bit red in the nose (in his case, really an alcoholic). We take in brief glimpses of him in his pajamas, slouched over a cot in the infirmary where the holdovers must stay, sipping his beloved Jim Beam (or James Beam, as he calls it at one point). But his alcoholism is never moralized one way or the other. It’s a coping mechanism, a sad one for a sad man, unfortunately, an understandable one. Mary teaches Paul about popular entertainment (stodgy as he is), and he rattles off to her and anyone who will listen in Latin and Greek (though his saying “salve” instead of “salvete” to his class is a regrettable mistake). Just as his drinking is not a moral question, so is she a realized, though broken, spout of wisdom, the hard-earned stuff. She doesn’t sing in the kitchen or love the privileged layabouts, but she does have lessons to offer from a life well-lived, if tragic and backbreaking.

There are no easy resolutions here, no simple emotions. That’s the core of a film that understands the Holiday season. How else can we view a time honored by such songs as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and even “Mary, Did You Know?” Payne’s attention to detail pays off. We might just have a Christmas classic on our hands (though, for my money, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander remains on top).

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