Oscar Watch 2023: The Holdovers


I can’t remember the last time a Christmas movie was nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar. A quick Google search tells me Little Women in 2019 is considered a Christmas film, but that is a technicality. Little Women happens to have some scenes that take place on Christmas; the film isn’t expressly about the holiday and its commercialized family focus. The Holdovers can almost be considered a retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life with how the plot integrates its dissection of the meaning of the holiday against broken family elements and the darkness that life can bring.

Now, longtime readers of Flixist will know that I am not a fan of Christmas films. I find them superficial, hollow, and generally just annoying. The Holdovers was truly a surprise for me in that I actually enjoyed it. It’s great, even, and I’m not baffled at all that it was nominated for “Best Picture.” It has great characters, supremely good acting, and a slick sense of humor that feels delightfully old-school while also being occasionally dark.

All of that shouldn’t have been a surprise because the film was helmed by Alexander Payne. Back in 2004 when I was on my trek to discover what film meant to me, I had my mother take me to various films that I saw were either getting good critical buzz or sounded outside the mainstream. One of our favorites from that time was Sideways, a film that was not only directed by Alexander Payne but starred Paul Giamatti. The two make an excellent pairing.

The Holdovers

© Focus Features

In The Holdovers, Giamatti plays a grumpy, jaded ancient history teacher named Paul Hunham who has taken residency at the fictional Barton Academy boarding school in Massachusetts. Known for his strict nature and slight odor, Hunham gets into an argument with the school’s headmaster, Dr. Woodrup (Andrew Garman), over his flunking of a senator’s son that happened to cost Barton a massive donation. This argument then covertly allows Woodrup to “punish” Hunham by having him stay at the school over the winter break to watch the holdover students who couldn’t go back home to their families.

For the first half of the film, The Holdovers sort of plays like a classic coming-of-age comedy that you would have seen in the 70s. The main character attempts to impart knowledge to his students and there is a carefree attitude that permeates the proceedings. There is more cursing than you would have seen in the 70s, but The Holdovers nails the sights and sounds of golden age Hollywood thanks to careful, sometimes autobiographical writing and a keen eye by cinematographer Eigil Bryld.

According to David Hemingson, the film’s screenwriter, Payne had contacted him in 2018 with the initial idea for the movie and wanted to set it in 1958. Hemingson dissuaded him with two simple statements. One, 2018 had more in common with the 70s than 1958, especially with regards to racial injustice. Two, Setting the film in the late 50s would make it feel too similar to Dead Poet’s Society.

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With that, the stage was set and the story developed from there. I would be remiss to not bring up the allegations of plagiarism against the film, but I don’t know how to tackle that. There’s a curious scene that comes awfully close to referencing this real-life event, but I can’t make any definitive claims about theft. Anyway, with Hemingson on board, Payne allowed him the room to create the story and Hemingson pulled a lot from his real life. Speaking to Deadline, Hemingson stated, “So many of the things in the movie are just a love letter to my mom and my uncle and my dad.” One of the film’s best lines, “Life is like a henhouse ladder: shitty and short,” was reportedly said by Hemingson’s uncle.

That touch is what endeared The Holdovers to me. As I’ve made it abundantly clear to anyone around me, Christmas movies feel incredibly phony. They usually focus on the gift-giving process and not the personal struggles that people deal with during the holidays. One of this film’s best characters, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), has it the worst as she is dealing with the loss of her son. Drafted into the Vietnam War and killed in action, Mary’s son Curtis’ absence is constantly felt despite the audience never getting to see him. Mary puts on a strong front, but she eventually breaks down and it tears your heart into pieces.

That’s the type of characterization that I enjoy. Not only is it emotional, but it’s realistic. I can’t claim that every Christmas movie dodges these heavier subjects, but you rarely see a Christmas film bring up the sadness that can be associated with the holiday due to personal tragedy. For Mary, Christmas is likely irrevocably damaged since she not only lost her husband but also her son.

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Hunham has his own demons to contend with, but the film’s other main character, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), arguably has things the worst. The movie starts with you believing he is some preppy, stuck-up rich kid who is “too cool” for school. In a remarkable show of confidence I only wish I could have had during high school, he stands up to bullies, talks back directly to Hunham, and lashes out when his holiday plans are eventually ruined. That tough exterior belies a sadness within.

Moreso than the plot, The Holdovers is about the emotional journey these characters embark on with each other. While my mind tried to compare this to Full Metal Jacket in that it feels like two distinctly different films with different vibes, the second half of The Holdovers is where the emotional heavy lifting is done. Hunham gets stuck with five kids at the start, but eventually, four of those kids are “rescued” by another’s father and they get to leave for the vacation they’ve always wanted. Angus, on the other hand, is left behind.

The second half of the film delves into the why, but not before setting Hunham, Angus, and Mary on a road trip together. Mary does, unfortunately, get sidelined for a bit, but the story’s justification for this doesn’t feel contrived. Having not left Barton for the holiday as a way to deal with the loss of her son, Mary eventually reacquaints with her family and grieves with them. This leaves Hunham and Angus to fend for themselves in Boston, the city that Angus kept begging his teacher to take him to.

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While I was blown away by the performances in the first half, the depth of the story is what turned my opinion of the film around. I thought it was mostly a very good movie before we got into the nitty gritty of why these characters were acting the way they were. I’m an easy mark for character studies in film as I love character-driven action. Plots are secondary to my enjoyment of a film (or game, for that matter) because those typically exist as a means to prod at characters to get them to react.

Mary’s journey is mostly over when the film gets to the halfway point, but Hunham and Angus are forced to reconcile with their pasts to help propel themselves forward. Throughout the film, we see Angus struggling with his home life. His entire place in this story came about because his mother made plans with Angus’ new stepdad and decided to cancel his vacation. Then at one point, Angus tells Hunham his dad is dead. Turns out, that’s not the full story.

In the most heartbreaking sequence in the film, Hunham takes Angus to a movie and Angus decides to skip out. Pulling a trick he did earlier, Hunham catches on and manages to find Angus entering a taxi. When Angus explains that he just wanted to see his father, Hunham agrees. Why wouldn’t he let the boy go to a cemetery to pay his respects? As it turns out, Angus’ dad is alive but has been confined to a mental institution.

© Focus Features

It informs all of what Angus has been doing throughout The Holdovers. He is erratic and angry because his home life is wracked with sadness. He was emotional because his mother had seemingly washed her hands of Angus, not to mention had threatened to send him to military school if he got kicked out of Barton. With Angus’ dad having fallen victim to some form of dementia and becoming belligerent, Angus is even afraid that it will hit him one day.

Before all of this, Hunham and Angus run into a classmate from Hunham’s past. Now a successful teacher and academic, Hunham doesn’t want to confront the past and winds up lying to the man. He explains that he is now well behind his teaching days and mostly does lectures abroad. Angus even throws in that Hunham is working on a monograph, though the truth is quite shocking considering what we know of Hunham thus far. In a new layer of development, Hunham reveals that he was accused of plagiarism while at Harvard by the son of a legacy donor to the college. In a fit of rage, he hit the kid with his car and was expelled, basically setting his entire life back. The intro sequence makes sense, now.

The Holdovers is incredibly considered when it comes to its characters and that’s what made me start to love it. There are certainly some elements that go nowhere as the focus for the film is on the journey rather than the destination. At a Christmas party, Angus meets a young girl and an abrupt ending to the night puts the kibosh on that. Hunham is also dealing with lady troubles and there is no natural conclusion to this within the story. As I said, Mary’s part of the plot gets resolved midway through and then she fades into the background. It’s not perfect.

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But then the conclusion puts a nice bow on everything so that you feel like you’ve been on a successful journey. After the Christmas break, everyone is back in school and things are slowly returning to normal. Hunham is making some efforts to rethink how he approaches teaching and Angus has calmed his nerves a bit. Sadly, Hunham gets called into Woodrup’s office and the hammer is dropped: Angus’ mom and stepfather are furious that Hunham took Angus to see his real father.

I’m pretty sure you can figure out how the film ends. While I was pretty sure that Hunham wouldn’t suddenly turn his back after the adventure everyone had embarked on, it still got me misty-eyed when he sacrificed his safe job at Barton to protect Angus. You can tell during their time in Boston that Hunham regrets not having a family of his own or for the lack of ambition he has had for several decades. At this point, he’s no longer going to take the safe route.

I don’t quite remember everything that happened in Sideways, but I remember it having a similar ending to this. You could say the movie is inconclusive or that it leaves Hunham’s fate up to interpretation, but I think that’s what makes it such a powerful closer. Over the course of one fateful vacation, Hunham went from being an impenetrable hardass to a man who is willing to make sacrifices to protect the ones he loves. How can you not fall for a film such as this?

The Holdovers hasn’t supplanted Past Lives as my favorite Oscar film from 2023. I also don’t think it’s better than American Fiction, a film with such biting satire and societal awareness that it will be discussed and dissected for years to come. Even without “deeper” elements to its story, the movie still climbed its way up my rankings to be a film I would happily recommend everyone watch. Hopefully, we won’t need to wait another 20 years for Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne to work together again.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.