THE HOLDOVERS. Your New Old Favorite Movie [REVIEW]

Like a message in a bottle from irreversibly bygone times

Katarzyna Kebernik

10 December 2023

Life for most people is like a ladder in a chicken coop: short and covered in shit,” says the main character, Professor Hunham, in the film. When cinema climbs onto this ladder full of crap in the chicken coop, honestly and with sensitivity observing human mediocrity, imperfections, and transience, often more beautiful things happen than in attempts to create more unattainable screen heroes. The Holdovers is precisely one of those beautiful things.

Professor Hunham (played by the fantastic Paul Giamatti) is exactly the person who has to climb and fight to stay on the shitty ladder throughout his life. A teacher of ancient history at an elite boarding school for boys from wealthy families, he is not popular among students who call him Cross-Eyes. Hunham is a typical “scythe,” but in his strictness towards students, we sense a certain idealism: he is genuinely passionate about the subject he teaches, conscientious in his duties, and despite pressure from the director, he refuses to give good grades to boys from influential families just because of their background. This refusal to conform makes him an outsider among the teaching staff. But beneath his punishment of spoiled kids lies something more: a bitterness and resentment. Even before we learn about the eccentric professor’s past, we feel that there is a lot of hurt in his actions, envy towards those who have so much and do not appreciate it.

Alexander Payne’s film (Sideways, Nebraska) takes place in the transition from 1970 to 1971 and begins like another film about an American campus. However, when the holiday break arrives at the college, and almost everyone leaves the building, we realize that it is a much more intimate story. Restless and lost Angus (an excellent debut by Dominic Sessy) is the only student whose family did not take him home for the holidays. However, someone from the faculty must take care of him during this time, and the director delegates this role to Hunham. The holidays at the school are also spent by the black cook, whose son recently died in Vietnam – Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). This trio, seemingly mismatched, spends a unique Christmas together, creating for a moment a patchwork family where the unloved boy finds a father for a while, the grieving mother pours love onto someone else’s child, and the teacher and student transcend the rigid pattern of school relationships, forming a deeper, open, truly enriching bond.

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The entire trio is a beautiful example of how sensitively one can tell stories about ordinary, gray people and their unnoticed dramas. However, Professor Hunham remains the most memorable. We know people who, from the start, were burdened with a significant weight to carry through life, and it only got worse – and although they always acted in accordance with their conscience, they were surpassed by those who were braver, more handsome, better positioned. The cross-eyed, sweating, and lonely Hunham seeks solace in alcohol, literature, and secretly watched fireflies. He approaches his imperfections with distance, tries to accept humiliations sent by fate with dignity, enjoys his life, does not dwell on the past and the injustices suffered. In the film itself, we find a lot of subtle humor and warmth. Terms like “holiday film” or even “feel-good movie” in the context of The Holdovers are strongly questionable to me – besides comfort, the film offers too much emotion, sympathy, reflection, and existential contemplation to be considered a typical mood booster. More accurately, it provides intellectual and spiritual enjoyment, reminiscent of engaging with quality American realistic prose.

In addition to all this: I watched The Holdovers during the cinematographers’ holiday, the Camerimage festival. And indeed, this is a title that very vividly illustrates the power of cinematic imagery. The visual design and framing evoked a strong nostalgia for times I don’t remember but love so much: the American 1970s, my favorite decade in Hollywood cinema. The ability of cinema to be a time machine, to create dreams and experience inaccessible places and eras, has been taken to the maximum in The Holdovers. Following the characters gliding through the snow to the rhythm of music that could be in Simon & Garfunkel’s repertoire, we enter the world of memories, our past cinematic delights, and the first serious achievements of today’s cinema giants. Alexander Payne, like Professor Hunham, holds the classics in the highest regard. The film he directed – I am convinced – will occupy a special place in the hearts of those who also love them.

The film refers to the American New Wave not only stylistically but in its entire plot, deepened character portraits, and addressed issues (rebellion, moral choices, system corruption, Vietnam, youth-age, ideals-career), combining protest (in Angus) with intellectualism (in Hunham): also through a slower, slightly snow-covered pace. It’s as if The Holdovers was hibernated several decades ago, and the whole thing reached us today, untouched, like a message in a bottle from irreversibly bygone times when auteur cinema was still the driving force of Hollywood.

Katarzyna Kebernik

Katarzyna Kebernik

She lives for reading, watching, listening and telling stories.

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