Before we see an image, we hear a voice speak: “In the beginning was the word.” And then many voices, forming a wordless chord. This is, as the first image reveals, a choir practice. The boys in the choir are, literally, setting the tone for what is to come. As their choir director leads them in earnest, their voices unfold into a Christmas hymn, initiating a motif that will carry throughout the rest of the film.
After the word, “Let there be light.” With the tone set, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) leads us around campus as he establishes the setting. The Holdovers takes place in 1970 at the Barton Academy, a private school for boys that resides somewhere in the wintry enclaves of New England. It is the cusp of Christmas break, and it is suitably frigid. Thick tracts of snow cover the gentle hills, forming a picturesque winter scene. As the opening credits slide, Payne depicts the landscape of Barton and the nearby town, emphasizing light: the snow makes the setting impossibly bright. There’s no gleam of reflection; rather, the light seems to be held within the snow itself, radiating from below, igniting the burgundy brick of the campus.
As the semester ends, the boys are restless, and the instructors largely pass the time until the holiday begins. The exception to that rule is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the school’s Ancient Civilizations teacher. His way of contributing to the holiday cheer is to hand out final exams (with mostly failing grades) and begin a new lecture. He’s a recognizable type, the hard-edged teacher who understands his role as loyalty to an unwavering principle: the cause of continued learning. Breaks are merely wasted time.
Hunham may not be popular among the students, but—well, actually, he’s not well liked by the other instructors or Barton’s administration, either. The headmaster describes him as “hidebound,” and even that may be a charitable take. But there are outliers from this widely felt ill will: Miss Crane (Carrie Preston) cheerfully brings him Christmas cookies, and Hunham has a mutual appreciation for Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a cook at Barton whose son was a former student.
Hunham is saddled with the responsibility of staying at Barton over the holiday to care for the school grounds and the “holdovers,” children whose parents don’t pick them up. Neither Hunham nor these boys are very excited about this. Already facing the frustration of being stuck at the academy, they now have to spend the next few weeks with their most hated instructor. While the initial group of holdovers numbers five, it quickly drops to a single boy: Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose father has died and whose mother is off on a honeymoon with Angus’ new stepdad.
Angus and Hunham are stuck with each other, along with Mary, who’s also staying over the holiday. Needless to say, their tensions will frequently rub and spark into conflict, but they’ll gradually come to a deeper sense of connection and compassion. It’s a familiar formula, especially when set during Christmastime, but The Holdovers reaches into somewhat trickier and more genuine territory than expected. Payne, working from David Hemingson’s script, laces smart humor and nuanced sadness into the lives of these lonely characters. Everyone is facing their own sorrow, and each one proves to be more layered than it seems at first.
Mary’s son, one of the few Black students at Barton, recently died fighting in Vietnam. Unlike the wealthy students that fill Barton’s falls, he couldn’t obtain an exemption on the basis of college. So instead he died fighting a dubious war. Hunham is perceptive of her pain and sacrifice, and he, too, begrudges the insulated privilege of the majority of his students. The boys are nearly all “rich and dumb,” Mary claims. Hunham retorts, “It’s a plague.”
Hunham, meanwhile, is weighed down by professional failures and the erosion of happiness that comes with being a constant target of disdain. He’s become hardened, near solipsistic, in his ways. Angus despairs the loss of his dad, and the neglect of his mother in her new marriage is salt in the wound. Plus, he’s a teenager, and a sarcastic one, at that.
The performances are consistently strong. There are few movie pleasures as reliable as watching Giamatti play a grumpy intellectual, and he’s in fine form here. The Holdovers is Sessa’s debut, and he’s very good, especially in moments of directionless rage. Such exaggerated moments are often when young performances break, but Sessa handles them deftly. Randolph is similarly powerful, embodying the burden of Mary’s pain and bringing a relaxed physicality when called to challenge the two men. There’s a constant awareness in The Holdovers of how class and race separate Mary in the environment of Barton, but the script and Randolph’s performance ensure that Mary’s dignity is never diminished. Each performance is deserving of awards attention (and indeed, Randolph has already been awarded “Best Supporting Actress” from the New York Film Critics Circle).
Despite their own aches, Angus, Mary, and Hunham find instances to care for others from the start. Giamatti’s is a particularly crusted concern, but it’s present. Theirs is not a journey toward compassion in general, but rather a journey of learning how to care for each other in particular. They become attentive first to the humanity and individuality of each other, and from that they perceive what they each need. This extends to the filmmaking: Payne imbues generosity in the slow dissolves, gently stepping nearer to Payne’s characters.
The long winter of The Holdovers is punctuated by the choral hymns and carols that open the film. It forms a backdrop to their sadness. Moreover, it incarnates a sense of hope. These characters are lonely and grieving. Hoping, but with a perseverance that is waning. Enter into this space songs of Jesus, the long awaited comforter. One who brings forgiveness and mercy, who heals the deepest wounds, who conquers even death. The choral music adds a felt presence to a story otherwise marked by loneliness. There’s compassion in the refrains. They don’t fill the absence, but they accent it. Hunham may be a thoroughgoing atheist, but Payne’s choice is revealing: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
The Holdovers is a straightforward tale told with surprising depth. It acts frigid, but it melts to a real warmth. The Holdovers proclaims the chance of finding rest even amidst our deepest sorrows. Or, as the carol states: “Let nothing you dismay/Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day/To save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray.”