When it comes to film genres, the kinds, the sorts, the categories of picture defined by certain conventions and characteristics, we’re all familiar with sci fi, the western, the detective crime drama, the war epic, fantasy, comedy (which includes mini-genres like rom-com, absurdist (think Airplane!), black (think Dr. Strangelove). Then there’s the curmudgeon. You’ve seen at least one curmudgeon: A Man Called Otto, St. Vincent, Gran Torino: the irascible old coot whom everyone fears or hates but who slowly but surely grows a heart, or a conscience, and decides to sacrifice something, even himself, for someone with “potential.”
Then there’s the classroom movie. Where to begin? Goodbye, Mr. Chips; To Sir, With Love; The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie; The Paper Chase; Educating Rita; Mr. Holland’s Opus; and of course Dead Poets Society. The heroic, or misguided, instructor who learns as much as teaches or manages to break through to the bullheaded and rebellious. The parental figure who stands in the way of his kid’s enlightenment or free expression. The wayward student (or students) who come to appreciate their instructors and embark on a promising future.
The Holdovers, a much-celebrated new film by director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, Nebraska) and writer David Hemingson (How I Met Your Mother, Uncle Buck) wraps up both the curmudgeon and the classroom into one Christmas present. Set in December 1970 and ending in January 1971, we’re asked to think of it as just that—a ’70s kind of movie, from its credits style to the (as IMDB.com has it) “film grain, halation, dirt, and gate weave.” The setting is Barton, a posh boys’ prep school in Massachusetts, where the privileged few prepare for advancement in the Academy and in life.
The lineup of students who get the story started includes the vulgar, pot-smoking, and racially insensitive Kountze (Brady Hepner); two kids who look like they’re too young to be anywhere without a legal guardian (one is LDS, the other a Korean immigrant); the epitome of WASP perfection, Jason Smith (Michael Provost), whose father owns his own helicopter, which he uses to commute to work; and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa)—the co-star of the piece.
Tully’s Christian name almost gives the character away,* evoking angst and anger and a beef with just about everyone. In short, a piece of work: “belligerent, erratic, and a giant pain in the [expletive deleted],” as we will see. Tully has reason to be miffed: he was never supposed to be one of the “holdovers,” those students who stay behind at Barton during Xmas break because, for one reason or another, they have nowhere else to go. Tully was headed to St. Kitts, on a special vacay with his mom and her new husband, Stanley. But things go sideways as mom and stepdad decide to take an impromptu late honeymoon and leave Tully behind. With the others. And Mr. Hunham. (That Mr. will prove meaningful as the drama proceeds.)
Played by the inimitable Paul Giamatti, Hunham teaches ancient history, or “civilization” as he likes to emphasize. Actually, he more or less lives in antiquity, where the contemporary (that is, 1970s) world can’t touch him. He’s a hard-edged and demanding teacher who does not suffer fools or slackers gladly, as well as a life-long bachelor who suffers from a condition that causes him to exude an unpleasant odor that grows stronger as the day unfolds. Which may explain his lack of female companionship.
“I don’t know. I like being alone. I’ve always found myself drawn to the aesthetic. Like a monk. The forgoing of sensual pleasures for the achievement of spiritual goals.” “What spiritual goals are we talking about? You go to church?” asks Mary Lamb, the manager of the cafeteria and one of the Christmas holdovers. “Only when required,” he replies. In fact, Hunham’s go-to Xmas gift is a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
“For my money, it’s like the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita all rolled up into one. And the best part is not one mention of God.” OK.
Hunham has high academic standards, refusing to pass an otherwise failing student simply because he is the son of a senator who also happens to be a generous donor to the school, causing the principal, a former Hunham student, no end of grief.
Hunham justifies his intransigence by quoting one of the immortals among late Barton staff, a Dr. Greene: “‘We cannot sacrifice our integrity on the altar of their entitlement.’ I’m just trying to instill basic academic discipline. That’s my job. Isn’t it yours?”
That note of entitlement is played softly but noticeably throughout. The fact that most of the Barton custodial and caretaking staff is black, while perhaps only one of the student body is, is inescapable. As is class, class, class. As Mr. Hunham angrily informs Kountze, who dismisses Mary as a poor cook but supposedly unfireable, “You know, Mr. Kountze, for most people, life is like a henhouse ladder: sh—y and short. You were born lucky. Maybe someday you entitled little degenerates will appreciate that. If you don’t, I feel sorry for you, and we will have failed to do our jobs.”
Noble intentions aside, as punishment for his inability to draw distinctions between the ideal and the politically expedient, Hunham must spend Christmas break at the school with the holdovers, making him, in essence, one of them. Basically, he must baby-sit five kids who (mostly) hate his guts during what should be the cheeriest time of the year.
As mentioned, also stuck at the school is Mary Lamb, a middle-aged African American woman now stuck cooking for a decidedly ungrateful crew. Her son, Curtis, was a student at Barton owing to Mary’s employment there. But because she could not afford to pay for his college education, he was drafted upon graduation (this is the Vietnam era, after all)—and killed in action. Curtis’ father died before the boy was even born, in an on-the-job accident. “Neither of them made it to 25. My baby wasn’t even 20,” she tells Hunham, who has something akin to affection for Mother Mary, the only member of the species homo sapiens for whom he appears to offer any kind of human warmth or sympathy. Whether this is owing to the loss she bears like a cross or the loss of his own mother at a tender age, which left him subject to an abusive father, is unclear. These are not mutually exclusive explanations, of course.
Keeping the kids focused on lessons during what should have been a holiday vacation is a neat trick. Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan), for one, finds the tedium and loneliness almost unbearable. When he wakes from a nightmare during which he wets the bed, his roommate Tully manages to comfort him nevertheless, to see that he’s not totally alone. Yes, Tully has his issues, but one thing he is not is a bully. Tully punches up.
It’s not long into this exercise in academic monkery that Jason’s dad swoops down out of the heavens and offers to take not only his son but the rest of the kids on a skiing trip. (It seems that in a test of wills between the old man, who wanted Jason to cut his flowing blond locks or be left behind at Barton for Christmas, and Jason—the kid won.) Hunham gets sign-off from all the parents—except Tully’s, who cannot be reached. If Tully was insufferable before, Hunham ain’t seen nothing yet.
In fact, in a fit of frustrated rage, Tully does the unthinkable—he defies Hunham’s warnings and runs across the newly lacquered gym floor and, in an attempt to leap a pommel horse, dislocates a shoulder, landing him in an emergency room. While waiting to be seen, Tully tells the nurse a tale about how he doesn’t want his “dad” (Hunham) to sign insurance forms, because it will just get him in dutch with his mom, from whom dad is divorced, and cause more tension in this broken family, making it harder for them to spend time together. Plus, they’ll pay cash.
“Barton men don’t do that,” decries Hunham. “Do what?” asks Tully. “Barton men don’t lie.” Except, of course, when they do. (More on that later.)
During a Christmas party thrown by a Barton colleague, Mary gets good and loaded and begins playing Artie Shaw records so she can drift back to a happier time with her late fiancé. When an annoyed partygoer asks her to play something else, Randolph flips a switch and the barely contained rage comes to the surface in a way that would give Robert DeNiro pause. She’s finally reduced to tears expressive of her loss and loneliness and has to be walked out of the house and back to the car by Hunham and Tully.
An inevitable altercation breaks out between these two. “Do you think I want to be babysitting you?” Hunham exclaims. “Oh, no no no. I was praying to the god I don’t even believe in that your mother would pick up the phone or your father would arrive in a helicopter or a submarine…”
“My father is dead.”
And in a lightning flash, the three of them are united not only in grief but in a search for a family unit, for attachment to a living, breathing permanent thing.
Back at Barton, Mother Mary cooks what Tully admits is the first real family Christmas dinner he’s ever had, his mother always preferring to order in. He offers his thanks. And means it. Hunham, taken by the mood and their newfound bond, goes so far as to relent to Tully’s one real Christmas wish: a trip to Boston. He figures he can get away with it by calling it a “field trip,” for which there is even a budget.
And off the two of them go, wandering through museums and the cultural artifacts that make up the source material of Hunham’s academic life. At one point, they happen upon a former Harvard classmate of Hunham’s, who is fed a tissue of lies about how the Barton man has “landed on his feet” and is teaching on fellowships at prestigious international universities and private schools, and how he’s currently rooted in Antwerp. It’s cover. When we learn for what, well, a lot about Hunham’s place at Barton, and in the world, falls into place.
“I thought Barton men don’t lie,” Tully says. “You are not to judge me,” replies Hunham.
Then Tully does what Tully is wont to do: he breaks the rules and gives Hunham the slip, scampering off to catch a cab. Hunham chases him down and becomes apoplectic, until Tully admits what this trip has always been about—seeing his biological father, whom he misses more than anything. “Why didn’t you just ask me? Because of course we can visit a cemetery.”
Only it’s not that simple. And the consequences of this little side trip will permanently reset their life trajectories.
As Hunham and his temporary ward have been wandering the streets of Beantown, Mother Mary has been getting caught up with the only family she has left: her sister and brother-in-law. Originally she had passed on an invitation to come spend the holidays. “I feel like it’s too soon. Like Curtis will think that I’m abandoning him. You know, this is the last place that my baby and I were together, not including the bus station.” But once ensconced in her expectant sister’s house, Mary’s able to let go of some of her late son’s baby things, to let go of what has been holding her from embracing another future. Not the one she had hoped for, certainly, but one she can still make special for another generation.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary has been getting all the attention, and awards, for her performance. She exudes a complicated presence, one that toggles between resentment and a kind of low-grade affinity for the holdovers (when Hunham insists the kids have “had it easy all their lives,” she replies, “You don’t know that”), this despite the almost stereotypical role she has to assume. In short, she definitely enjoys a couple of scene-stealing moments, the kind Oscar loves, but I couldn’t help asking myself what, say, Viola Davis would have done with the same role.
It’s Giamatti and Sessa, however, who left me reeling. I don’t know if Giamatti’s capable of giving a bad, or at least an uninteresting, performance. From wounded pride to outraged intellect to sad puppy to sympathetic uncle, his is a capacious skill set. As for Sessa, he’s already won one award for Best Youth Performance. I’m sure that’s just the first of many. His flex is already quite impressive for a newbie.
I’ve never been a big fan of Payne’s films. No one will ever accuse him of an excess of style. And I find most of his characters, even those with whom we’re supposed to fall in love or at least afford some sympathy, to be thin, unlikable, even cloying. But with The Holdovers, I started off with arched eyebrow at what I saw as conventions of the aforementioned genres, but the narrative pivoted left when I thought it was going to go right just enough times to keep me invested. Plus, there are two moments in this film I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
The first touched a personal father-son chord that surprised me to the point of inflicting pain. The second is a single look on Giamatti’s/Hunham’s face as he says a final goodbye to Tully. It’s a knotty expression of love and fear and pain—pain from being unable to express fully what he’s feeling. You know he wants to give this boy a hug. Perhaps he refrains because of the odor thing. But more likely it’s a matter of … well, that’s just not what Barton men do.
Since this is set in a school where young men are both educated and mentored, it’s fitting to ask what the major characters learn. Hunham? To love something, or someone, more than one’s own security. If you’re going to take a risk, do so for someone else’s benefit. That’s at least part of what it means to be a saint, even a Stoic one. Tully? That his destiny is not fixed, either by biology or others’ low expectations, that he has potential, but his choices, his choices, will make the difference. And Mary? That so long as she has “people,” she still has a future, one even a devastated past can’t destroy.
As for us? To have a future at all, and to have it open just wide enough to let a dream come into view, is all the privilege we need. Or at least are entitled to.
I’d say that’s more than enough to ask of a genre flick.
* My friend Titus Tichera just reminded me that Cicero, author of the Paradoxa Stoicorum, was also called Tully, which can hardly be a happy coincidence.