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Review: The Holdovers (2023)

By Elizabeth BJ

Set in a New England prep-school, Alexander Payne's The Holdovers (2023) has, along with being nominated for five Oscars, received 190 nominations, of which it has won 105 prizes.

I know, I know. This is technically a Christmas movie, and it's the end of January when I'm writing this. However, I believe the relevance of the movie's message extends far beyond the holiday season, and the themes explored in such films often resonate universally. If "The Holdovers" has garnered Oscar nominations in prominent categories like Film, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Film Editing, it suggests a compelling and well-crafted cinematic experience that transcends any specific time of year. Whether enjoyed in December or February, the film's final message likely holds a timeless significance, making it a relevant and worthwhile topic for discussion and celebration.

In Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, a strict teacher, Paul Hungam (Paul Giamatti), grapples with a challenging student during the winter holidays at a boarding school, where parents have the option to leave their sons.

The narrative follows the coming-of-age journey of Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who contends with family complexities, his father's mental struggles, his mother's absence, and personal challenges like depression and compulsive stealing. As Angus interacts with two other characters throughout the break, the film delves into the intricate lives of these individuals, uncovering hidden secrets and emotions among the adults in their shared space.

Along Tully's journey, Professor. Hunham, despite his age, experiences his own coming-of-age and inner exploration. While Truly has his life ahead of him, the professor is stuck in time, with recurrent solutions to his time as a student, and in space, confined to his former high school and now workplace. While dealing with Tully's behavioral issues, the teenager makes him face his weaknesses by stating “hard truths” and shadowing his actions. Professor Hunham is forced to face his past and the things he left aside for his present, which is quite unfulfilling. And, at last, he is also forced to make many decisions, showing that a coming-of-age story can come at any age.

The duo aren’t the only ones staying at school. Mary (Da’vine Joy Randolph), the school head cook, also stays, though in her case it was a personal choice. Her only son died while serving in the army, and the grounds of the school were the last place they shared.

Beyond the individual lessons each character learns, "The Holdovers" intricately contrasts the lives of its three main characters, offering viewers a profound insight. The overarching message echoes, "The only thing that can stop you from growing is death." However, the narrative goes beyond this, highlighting the disparities in their backgrounds.

Professor Hunham, while emphasizing his students' privileges, seems oblivious to his own economic advantages as a former alumni. Despite facing challenges like plagiarism and economic disparity, his lifestyle remains relatively comfortable. In stark contrast, characters like Linda Crane, working two jobs, and Mary's son, compelled to join the military for education, embody the struggle for change. Mary, despite lacking the means, embraces her circumstances, finding joy in old habits and new experiences.

The film suggests that while the ultimate barrier to growth is death, the ability to change is equally vital. Mary, constrained by circumstances, makes the best of her life, while Professor Hunham, capable of change, resists it until it becomes inevitable. The Holdovers is a narrative not about who stays but about seizing opportunities for personal growth.


About the Writer:

Elizabeth BJ, is a twenty-something Mexican writer fresh out of college (UNAM), where she studied English Literature. She has published poetry, critical analysis, fiction, nonfiction and recently interviews and research pieces, all on different online media, both in English and Spanish. Also, is interested in the creation and analysis of audiovisual media, and just recently started to build a path on illustration. Look her up at @cazandocolibris on Twitter and Instagram.


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