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  • Eve O'Dea

The Holdovers: Dead Sophists Society

Updated: Apr 28

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in story-telling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.”

The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne, has been oft described in many a Letterboxd review as “warm” and “cozy”, a classification that both Payne and myself reject. Early in the film, a teenage boy takes another's glove and throws it into a bank of snow, where it will be lost until the spring snowmelt. The boy, distraught at his sudden vulnerability, impulsively throws his other glove into the icy river and watches it drift away. Despite the sweaters and corduroy which adorn our cast of characters, this movie shows us how we are defenseless to the cold, providing brief moments of comfort only to throw us out into the snow.

From the start, The Holdovers demonstrates a uniquely sympathetic view towards young men of the twentieth century. It lambasts the societal expectation that boys ought to give up their lives for some higher power, such as a nation. It also quickly establishes how unchanging this expectation has been throughout history, from the Vietnam War taking place in the background of the film, to the Peloponessian war millenia ago.

The Peloponnesian War is one of many allusions to antiquity made throughout the film, allusions I’m sure any screenwriter would give their left arm to have justification to make, as well as occasional latin quotations to hit the film’s finer points on the head. Payne’s justification? Paul Hunham, our protagonsit played by Paul Giomatti, is a teacher of ancient civilizations at an elite boarding school who can’t quite get his lessons through the heads of his students. He is the antithesis to Robin Williams’ John Keating, who fosters a flame of curiosity and passion in his students. Hunham, on the other hand, snuffs it. 

Our story follows the triad of a teacher, a student, and a cook, all of whom, for one reason or another, are stuck at the elite Barton boarding school during the frigid New England winter break in 1970. Hunham, the teacher, is what one might call a hardass if they were being generous, unflinching in his unreachable expectations of academic excellence. Also, he’s an alcoholic, a somewhat arbitrary choice to easily reveal his duplicity to the audience. He’s an expert on the ancient world, but clueless about the one he lives in. He thinks of himself as a Socrates, a great educator and molder of minds, when in fact he is closer to one of his accusers. Giomatti gives an expectedly great performance as the classic curmudgeon hiding his own troubles underneath his vitriol towards others.

His ward for the winter is Angus Tully, a junior with a reputation for rebellion who has been expelled from a handful of schools before Barton. His mother, who has recently remarried, decides at the last minute to leave her son at the school for the winter in order to have some alone time with her new husband, much to Angus’ disappointment. Still, he has allies, four other boys similarly left behind by their family, including an insensitive bully, a jock with a good heart, a young Mormon (the one who loses his glove), and a Korean boy suffering from homesickness. The five of them, along with Hunham, brace themselves for what is to come. That is until the other four boys are swept away via literal deus ex machina, leaving a neglected Angus at the mercy of Hunham. In terms of undicovered talent, the casting director deserves a pat on the back for their discovery of the young Dominic Sessa, a brand new performer who wonderfully balances Angus’ mischievousness and angst with scattered hints of devastation. Throughout the film, the threat of the draft hangs over his head like the Sword of Damocles, present enough to keep him on Hunhamn's good side, at least, for a while.

The mediator between these two generations is Mary, the school’s cook whose son, a recent graduate of Barton, was just killed in Vietnam. As one of the few black people in a predominantly white environment, Payne introduces a compelling, and little discussed, issue of inequality to serve as a backdrop to our characters' personal dilemmas, illustrating the divide between those who fear the draft (upper-class white kids) and those killed by the draft (working-class black boys). As Mary, Da'Vine Joy Randolph keeps up easily with her costars, offering both unwavering resilience and moments of heartbreaking vulnerability. Unfortunately, the intrigue of Mary’s story, particularly how familiar it would have been to so many American families, is practically abandoned after the film’s halfway point. In the film’s third act, Mary all but disappears as new drama surrounding our male leads is introduced. Here, the film loses the opportunity to investigate a genuinely compelling matter of social hierarchy told with thoughtful consideration. Instead, it begins to waver into uneven and un-meritted melodrama.

The premise of the film, and even how it will progress and eventually end, is fairly clear from the get go. The film sets up an obvious odd-couple scenario between the stringent professor and his unruly student. Hunham is childless while Angus is lamenting the loss of his father. It’s a match made in screenwriting heaven. Naturally, the pair push each other's buttons until they eventually find themselves at something resembling common ground. In this scenario, Angus is not Paul’s Plato, the venerated philosopher and student of Socrates, but his Alcibiades, a controversial statesman of Athens exiled from the feuding city-states of Greece as often as Angus was expelled from schools. Socrates persisted in trying to shape this troublemaker, hoping to transform his brashness and vanity into the makings of a philosopher-king. Aesthetically, the film nails the design and production of 1970’s New England. Payne's love of the time period is obvious, and perhaps an obstacle of a more complex portrayal. Critic Richard Brody criticized the film’s apolitical, “hermetically sealed” portrayal of the 1970’s that is totally removed from the major events of the time period. While films certainly have no obligation to get "political" with the eras in which they are set, the 1970’s-ness of the film on occasion appears like a thin veneer over the film’s surface that could be easily removed with little consequence. This is most evidenced by the fact that it was filmed on digital and later altered to give the appearance of aged celluloid, with added grain, scratches, and tears. 

Brody rightly points out that the film is dramatically "back-loaded". While well-paced and evenly toned throughout its first half, the latter takes some larger swings that ultimately feel unecessary and unearned. The film owes its initial success largely to its willingness to show our characters as ordinary, experiencing both ordinary setbacks and ordinary joy One night, for example, Angus swipes Hunham’s ring of keys. Rather than escape, steal, or vandalize, he skips through the school hallways, eats ice cream out of the fridge, and plays piano in the auditorium. The film thrives on small victories and moments of goodness, and is so close to achieving greatness. After a letdown of a Christmas, Angus convinces Hunham to take him on a “field trip” to Boston, a trip he mentioned earlier that has a clear, paternal-based motivation. In Boston, that which plagues the two men comes to the forefront as Mary exits the scene. This sudden airing of dirty laundry is unbalanced, like a justification for our character's actions rather than the natural progression of a narrative. The moments themselves would perhaps feel more dramatically consistant if they did not take place so late in the film's runtime. At over 130 minutes, it feels as if Payne was given this length as an arbitrary prerequisite, and tasked to fill up the space indiscriminately. What we learn in Boston is objectivley tragic, setting the scene to make the upcoming moments of triumph all the more satisfying.

Despite this hiccup, the film has the chance to conclude with nuance. There is one scene in particular that would serve as a perfect ending for such a film, literally giving Payne the opportunity to end the film with a bang. Instead, it tags on an extra fifteen minutes in order to achieve a more classic and digestible narrative satisfaction in a manner that feels incongruent with the rest of the film's honesty. The final act introduces a conflict when the film should have already ended, relying on a checklist of cinematic clichés. The images, dialogue, and scenario that make up the final act are devoid of any originality that made the film unique in the first place. As mentioned at the top, the film has no problem deriving sympathy from its audience, even towards its unfavourable characters. Why Payne thought, after almost two hours, that he needed to pull more sympathy for his heroes, whom by the point the audience has already grown to love, I cannot quite understand.

During the trial of Socrates, the actions of the great philospher's students were brought under scrutiny as evidence of his corruption of Athens' youth, with the disgraced Alcibiades being one of the chief offenders. Of course, Socrates gave up every oportunity to save himself from death, considering a life on the run a weary existance for a philosopher. By the end of The Holdovers, Paul gets to have his socratic triumph, sacrificing his own well-being in the interest of helping others. All his casual latin quotations and lessons from the ancient world finally come back around to be thematically paid off. Just as Socrates was executed by way of drinking Hemlock, Hunham concludes the film taking a swig from a bottle of cognac. He's a regular reformed Grinch, or a charitable Scrooge, because as is soon made evident by its overly-pleasant conclusion, this is a Christmas movie. This ending, this victory, is perhaps what will gain the film the title of a "classic" to be revisted every Christmas season for years and years to come.

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