The Holdovers – What Popcorn Bliss is Made Of￼
By Jack Leal
Paul Giamatti’s personal boarding school experience translates with intensity in his latest film “The Holdovers”…wow! Written by David Hemingson, directed by Alexander Payne, and starring Paul Giamatti as Mr. Hunham, “The Holdovers” is a whirlwind of cinematic bliss. With fully fleshed-out characters, a strategically dated set design, and a grainy nostalgic filter, this film checks out to be an instant classic.
“The Holdovers” can be best described as a healthy brew between Peter Weir’s “The Dead Poet Society” and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” . To put it simply, amid the snowy hills of Massachusetts at Barton Academy: School for Boys, two very different characters cultivate a tender and unexpected bond.
Mr. Hunham is an Ancient History teacher who most people would describe as a hidebound curmudgeon. Hunham sees his students as rich “reprobates” clothed in money and self-entitlement. He, therefore, runs a tight ship with an iron fist and not a shred of sympathy.
Although Hunham’s opinion of his students may seem understandable due to their snotty track record, his dogmatic approach to teaching creates a lingering trail of irony. It’s clear that Hunham struggles with his own sense of self-entitlement which makes for an engaging character arc.
Mr. Hunham walks dangerously close to being someone the audience hates. However, the application of both a masterfully crafted script and Paul Giamatti’s charm made me adore his presence and cheer for him until the very end. Hunham gets on the wrong side of Barton’s headmaster because students and staff hate him. After a grading dispute with one of the spoiled students Hunham is punished by being assigned to take care of Barton’s holdovers.
The word “holdover,” in the context of this film, refers to the students who don’t have a family to return to for winter break. Whether their parents were too preoccupied with missionary work in Paraguay or simply had better things to do, a small glum sum of kids are doomed to become the holdovers.
This story outline seems like your classic coming-of-age film: a bunch of kids and a contemptible teacher in an intimate setting ready to learn about themselves and become better people. However, this is not what Hemingson does, and I’m forever thankful.
Instead, he sets us up with this cliche outline and subverts our expectations. Initially, there were five holdovers until a student with a rich father invited the rest on a ski trip upon their parent’s permission. All parents but one could be reached, which leads us to the film’s second main character.
Angus is what Mr. Hunham would describe as a “pain in the ass.” Despite having the best grades in class, he’s pretty smug. However, when he decides to be palatable, Angus is an upstanding kid who isn’t afraid to voice his opinion for what he believes is right.
Locked in Barton with Angus and Mr. Hunham is the third main character named Mary Lamb. Mary is Barton’s head cook, a grieving mother who recently lost a son in Vietnam. Despite having experienced this tragedy, Mary is the most stable character out of the three, accentuating their oddities and their evolution throughout the film. Because of her impartiality, she serves as a binding force for this little trio of misfits.
“The Holdovers” does a great job relying on character dimension and believability as opposed to big set design and technical achievement. Making characters more complex makes the movie more tangible and authentic.
In these character driven pieces, the protagonist and antagonist are less obvious. It’s very easy to write a villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. The antagonist of “The Holdovers” is not Mr. Hunham or even Angus’s parents. The antagonist of this film is the act of giving in to one’s burdens, like Angus’s affirmation of feeling unloved by his family, Hunham’s loss of hope for his students, or Mary’s lack of perseverance.
This film tries to convey the breadth of empathy and connection that can be found between people. Empathy doesn’t feed off mere similarities and pastimes but is based on overarching necessities that make us feel human. The reason this movie works so well is due to the spines of both Angus and Mr. Hunham’s character. A character’s spine is what famous screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton describes as “something that drove them, their unconscious goal, a motive that they were after.” Hunham and Angus both suffered a deep sense of alienation, a human emotion everyone has felt. If you can empathize with profound intrinsic emotion with someone completely different from you, their differences can make you grow instead of being something you detest.
I’m proud to say that “The Holdovers” is on my top five list of Christmas movies to date. The characters felt so real that I got lost in their lives, not wanting to leave, which is exactly what movies are made for.