top of page

"The Holdovers": A Movie Review

Updated: Jan 28


Blurb:  In 1970, a cranky history teacher at a remote prep school is forced to remain on campus over the holidays with a grieving cook and a troubled student who has no place to go.

Starring: Paul Giamatti

Da'Vine Joy Randolph

Dominic Sessa

Directed by:  Alexander Payne

Written by:  David Hemingso

BEN'S REVIEW:  Professor Paul Hunham, played excellently by Paul Giamatti (who is up for Best Actor in this role), is a teacher at Barton Academy, and gets the duty of staying at school during Christmas break with some students who have no place to go. He's not excited about it, but he doesn't have any family or obligations and he gets a hefty bonus.

Not necessarily an original theme, but are there any original themes? It's what is done with the theme that matters, right?

And, whoa, is the professor truly is a bitter man! In the opening scene he gives almost all of the students a failing grade on their final exams. And for all intents and purposes, he seems not to care that he could have destroyed some of their futures. But then he agrees to give them a chance to make it up after break.

We also meet a cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, another Oscar contender, she for Best Supporting Actress), who has just lost her son who "gave his life in service of his country."

Student Angus Tully, while virtually waiting outside the school for his mother and stepfather to pick him up, gets a call from his mother asking him to stay at school for the Christmas break. His mother, who has recently remarried, actually gives him no real choice. He is devastated.

Professor Hunham has decided to make the five student's breaks hell (they each have their own story and reason for having to stay at the school), making them study for hours, and exercise outside in the freezing cold, because he claims it will give them character. To save heat, the students won't even get to stay in their dorm room but will all have to bunk together in the infirmary, and the school has even sold the Christmas tree back to the farmers so they won't even have a tree for the holidays.

Mary Lamb has decided to stay over because she feels that she would be abandoning her son's memory any other way. The school was the last place, except the bus station where he was sent off to war, where they were together.

Angus Tully is very bitter, and angry, as well as spoiled. He and his fellow students drive Prof Hunham to ever higher anger, and it's not hard to see why. He tells Mary that he doesn't need to go easy on the students, they've had easy all their whole lives. But she points out that he doesn't know that. And asks him if his whole life was easy. She also tells him that she took this job so that her son could have a good education and that he flourished here. But she lost both her son and her fiancé before either reached the age of twenty-five.

Our cast is had a difficult life.

And therein lies the story.

Things get even worse when one of the student's father helicopters in and takes all the boys away from the school to go skiing. And of course, for our story's sake, Tully can't go.

Things get worse, and Tully, acting out, dislocates his shoulder. Hunham could lose his job. Through lies, Tully saves them both. And this a twist in our story.

Of course, as the movie unfolds, our characters, all three, change and grow. We find out things about their pasts, they're pain, their wishes, their dreams. As the layers are peeled away and we find out more and more about our characters. They go beyond the stereotypical and become real. We find out the roots of their anger, hurt, and bitterness. They are human.

This is why I watch a movie, to see characters grow. And while the theme of this story is not new, we get to watch unfold the trope turned upside down and inside out. And a good reason why this movie is up for Best picture.

This movie is well worth watching.



Warning: The following is a complete synopsis of the movie. It's nothing but spoilers. Read at your own risk!

IIn December 1970, Paul Hunham is an authoritarian classics professor at Barton Academy, a New England boarding school that he once attended on scholarship. His students and fellow teachers despise him for his brutally honest grading and difficult personality. Barton's headmaster, Woodrup, scolds Hunham for having cost the academy an important donor by giving the donor's son a failing grade, which led to the donor's son being rejected from Princeton University.

As punishment, Hunham is forced to supervise the "holdover" students left on campus for the holidays, including Angus Tully, whose mother abruptly cancelled a family trip to Saint Kitts to honeymoon with her new husband. Also staying behind is cafeteria administrator Mary Lamb, who is grieving the loss of her son, a Barton alumnus killed serving in the Vietnam War.

To their chagrin, Hunham imposes studying and exercise on the holdovers' break. After six days, the wealthy father of one of them arrives by helicopter and agrees to take all the students on the family's ski trip. Angus, unable to reach his parents for permission, is left alone at Barton with Hunham and Mary. When Hunham catches Angus trying to arrange a hotel room, Angus runs through the school halls while Hunham chases him. Angus defiantly leaps into a pile of gym equipment, dislocating his shoulder. At the hospital, Angus lies to protect Hunham from blame. Hunham later flirts with Lydia Crane, the assistant to the headmaster, after he and Angus encounter her at a restaurant, and she invites the pair to her Christmas Eve party.

On Christmas Eve, Angus, Hunham, Mary, and Barton's janitor, Danny, attend Lydia's party. While Angus spends time with Lydia's niece, Elise, Hunham is disappointed to discover that Lydia has a boyfriend, and Mary gets drunk and has an emotional breakdown over her son's death. Hunham insists on leaving early. While arguing with Hunham, Angus angrily shouts that his father is dead, causing Mary to lambast Hunham for his unsympathetic approach.

Having reflected on his behavior, Hunham puts together a small Christmas celebration, and with Mary's persuasion, grants Angus's wish for a "field trip" to Boston. After dropping Mary off in Roxbury to spend time with her pregnant sister, Angus and Hunham bond over various activities in Boston, including ice skating and a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. They bump into one of Hunham's classmates from Harvard University, who has become a successful academic. When prompted, Hunham lies about his career, and Angus plays along. Hunham reluctantly confesses to Angus that he was expelled from Harvard after deliberately hitting a colleague, a legacy donor's son who framed him for plagiarism, with a car. After the incident ruined Hunham's career prospects, a connection to a teacher at Barton allowed him to secure a teaching position there.

When Hunham and Angus go to see Little Big Man at the Orpheum Theatre, Angus sneaks away and Hunham catches him entering a taxi. Angus explains he wants to see his father, and Hunham agrees to accompany him, assuming they are going to a cemetery. However, Angus's father is still alive and confined in a psychiatric hospital due to mental health issues and violent outbursts. Following the visit, Angus expresses concern that he will turn out like his father; Hunham comforts him and sincerely declares that Angus has a bright future. They join Mary and Danny to celebrate New Year's Eve.

When school resumes in January 1971, Hunham is summoned by Lydia to Woodrup's office, and finds Angus's mother and stepfather there as well. They tell Hunham that Angus's visit to the psychiatric hospital was unauthorized and that the snow globe Angus had given his father led to another violent outburst. Angus's mother and stepfather plan to send Angus to military school, but Hunham defends Angus and takes the blame for the trip. While Hunham is subsequently fired, Angus is allowed to stay at Barton.

Mary, who has come to better terms with the loss of her son, gives Hunham a notebook for the monograph he wants to write. Hunham and Angus share a poignant goodbye. Leaving the school, Hunham drinks from a bottle of cognac he stole from Woodrup, then spits some of it out toward the school and drives away. *

28 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page