Teach or Endure. About Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS
“People exist for each other. So either instruct them or endure them,” wrote Marcus Aurelius once. His timeless Meditations belong to the favorites of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the main character in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. In his office, the man keeps a box filled to the brim with copies of Marcus Aurelius’ magnum opus. It’s not just because the book bearing the name of the stoic emperor is, at least in the character’s opinion, the perfect gift for anyone and any occasion. Hunham sees Meditations as something much more, as he puts it himself: “It’s like having the Bible and the Quran in one, and there’s no mention of God!”
In his daily life, the man engages in “instruction.” He works as a lecturer in ancient history at Barton Academy, a boys’ boarding school. While imparting knowledge is not a challenge for him – it’s clear from the beginning that he is driven by a passion for the subject and the noble idealism of an old-fashioned educator – dealing with his students is a different story. Especially when they lack intelligence and come from well-off families – and let’s be honest, this is a common combination at Barton. In the eyes of the students, Hunham is a sore spot in human form, and the classes he leads are seen as an unpleasant duty. Nobody is thrilled when it turns out that the teacher of ancient history will be in charge of the titular “holdovers” during the winter break – unlucky students left at the school for the winter holidays.
One of these unlucky students is the teenage Angus Tully (a remarkable screen debut by Dominic Sessy), who prefers stealing fireflies from his classmates’ drawers over reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Just before the start of the holidays, the protagonist learns that his mother won’t take him home for Christmas. Despite his earnest and almost pleading requests, the woman prefers to go on a belated honeymoon with her new partner. Therefore, the boy has to spend Christmas on the campus, under Hunham’s watchful eye.
Drawing on David Hemingson’s text, Payne intertwines the teacher’s and the student’s storylines with care and the precision of a seasoned master, ensuring a narrative collision at the right moment. The Holdovers turns out to be a tale of mutual understanding, the search for intergenerational harmony, and an unexpected life turn resulting from such quests. Both characters have strong personalities but are oriented in different ways. At the most basic level, they share the fact of being outsiders, individuals alienated and misunderstood by the environment in which they find themselves. Hunham is a figure of a frustrated intellectual – a man who would perfectly understand the struggles of the protagonist of A Man Called Ove. At the same time, Giamatti’s character smoothly fits into the roster of Alexander Payne’s film heroes: unfulfilled writers and life-weary bureaucrats (a teacher fits both descriptions) making an effort to reintegrate into society. It is Tully who encourages Hunham to undertake such an effort, embodying the American spirit of dissent.
If The Holdovers were filmed in the era in which the film is set, a rebellious Angus could be played by a young Nicholson or De Niro. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a rather turbulent period in the history of the United States. Americans had not yet recovered from a wave of politically motivated assassinations, claiming the lives of iconic figures like the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton. After years of Democratic dominance, Richard Nixon took over the presidency, first declaring plans to end the Vietnam War and then intensifying bombings while simultaneously conducting unsuccessful peace negotiations in Paris. The specter of the Vietnam War subtly hovers over Payne’s film, causing unease and setting a melancholic mood. Primarily through Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) – a black cook accompanying Hunham and Tully during winter break. Her son was once a student at Barton Academy, but after school, he couldn’t afford the desired college education, so he was drafted into the army and sent to the Vietnamese jungle, never to return. Mary’s grief, experienced in the background, is a secondary but important aspect of the film, painfully reminding Americans of social inequalities that determined who went to the front in the winter of 1970 and who went skiing with their parents.
However, The Holdovers is not just a page from the history of the United States but also a Christmas film through and through. There’s a last-minute purchased Christmas tree, decorations, snow, and a Christmas Eve dinner. On the soundtrack, alongside calm indie rock, carols make an appearance. The unique atmosphere of Christmas plays a significant role, quietly leading to the creation of something resembling a patchwork family between Hunham, Tully, and Mary over two weeks. The relationships formed then enrich each party. The mother works through the trauma of losing her son. The abandoned boy finds a father figure. The teacher, on the other hand, sees in the student a kindred spirit and a mirror that allows him to reconsider his cynical approach to life. Each of the three characters undergoes a similar journey within the plot – from overwhelming loneliness to genuine joy stemming from belonging to a community.
In the moving finale of The Holdovers, Hunham finally begins to understand what Marcus Aurelius meant when he wrote, “People exist for each other.” When the need arises, the man embodies the words of his beloved author in a heroic, purely altruistic gesture, sacrificing his warm position at Barton and thereby saving the future of the troublesome student. Watching the slow transformation of the character, one starts to wonder if they’ve witnessed a modernized version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; a contemporary retelling where, as Piotr Czerkawski noted, a cynical miser is replaced by a defeated intellectual.
But is he truly defeated? The ending of Payne’s film is an unexpected testament to the wisdom of the concluding message of the greatest American Christmas classic – Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both George Bailey and Paul Hunham learn firsthand that “no one is a failure who has friends.” The difference is that Bailey needed heavenly intervention to grasp this knowledge, while Hunham needed only a few weeks in the company of an annoying teenager and a school cook.