The Holdovers

My summary / review / thoughts about the 2023 film, The Holdovers. Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson.




Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a history teacher at Barton, an elite prep school. He smells bad, and looks goofy. He’s disliked by his students, and even some of his colleagues. He’s academically tough on the students, and views them as privileged, ungrateful, and stupid. He’s not necessarily wrong about that…

The Holdovers are an unfortunate group of students who, for one reason or another, don’t get to go home over the holiday break. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is one of those students. This year the babysitting duty falls upon Mr. Hunham, who is equally unhappy about the situation as the students are.

Angus and Mr. Hunham are initially framed as opponents. They are forced into awkward and unnatural situations together as the holiday break unfolds. Their manners are completely at odds, and they drive each other crazy.

Gradually, they begin to understand and appreciate each other. I enjoyed the way that key details of these characters were withheld until later on in the story. We gradually find out that these two are not so different after all.

Both Angus and Mr. Hunham are motivated to remain at Barton. For Angus, Barton is his last chance at a normal life. He’s just trying to avoid being expelled into a military academy by his mother.

Mr. Hunham wants to remain at Barton out of comfort. He considers Barton his home, and he’s been there long enough to have taught some of his colleagues back when they were students. However, we find out that he’s ashamed to have failed to obtain a more credentialed career. He’s averse to change, and wants to remain in his comfort zone. I don’t get the sense that he’s happy, though he likes to fool himself.

Another important character is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Barton’s “lunch lady”. She’s forced to cope with the harsh reality of her son’s death in the Vietnam war (which happened prior to the main storyline).

Mary’s son was financially forced to drop out of Barton and join the army. The fact that Mary must cater to the upper-class students of Barton, while her son is sent off to die, is heartbreaking and unfair. It’s interesting how education, or the society around it (I’ll just call it: “The System”), seem to have failed all three of these characters.

Mr. Hunham says to Angus, “I find the world a bitter and complicated place, […] I think you and I have this in common.” Angus and Hunham are perhaps the only two people who truly understand each other in the end, which is bitter-sweet.

Mary comes across as strong, but she is obviously grieving the loss of her son. Her hardships seem to give her a clear perspective, which allows her to see past the flaws of both Angus and Hunham.

Aside from being a mediator between Angus and Hunham, I feel like Mary’s role in this story is to help showcase the main idea: that we are not victims of our past. She’s ultimately able to transform her grief into positive steps forward.

Angus and Hunham help each other overcome their own, personalized versions of the same type of fear: Belief that our future is dictated by our past. It’s most apparent in Angus, who reveals to Hunham that he feels he is doomed to suffer his father’s same fate (stuffed away, institutionalized in a mental hospital). Hunham is able to help Angus overcome his fear.

It’s a little ironic that Mr. Hunham – a history teacher, with so much knowledge of the past – is unable to take control of his personal past and present. However, the time spent with Angus and Mary over the break lead him to a selfless act of kindness, which costs him his job, but secures Angus’s future. Hunham is able to move forward because of this as well.

The Holdovers remind me that we are more similar to each other than we realize. One of my favorite movies of 2023.