The Holdovers (2023)

Sometimes I'll say a movie doesn't have much of a plot, or that it's not driven by its story. In most cases, I'm lying: the movie has a plot, it's just that said plot is driven primarily by subtle character interactions and developments that are both difficult to remember and even more difficult to recap. In other words, I'm really saying the movie's plot isn't defined by external story beats but internal growth.

The Holdovers is one such film. I'm spelling that all out, because I don't want to give the impression that very little occurs in the course of the movie, or that there's anything less than fantastic about the writing. This is an amazing movie, and it deserves the accolades it's received. But it's also a subtle movie, which means it's a pain in the ass to actually describe the plot, so don't expect more than a vague overview this time.

The premise centers around two or three characters, depending on which side of the lead/supporting line you think Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Mary falls on. She's a grieving mother whose only son, a graduate of a boarding school she worked at for more than a decade to ensure his enrollment, has just died in Vietnam. And, for the most part, her character arc occurs independently from the other major characters, Paul Giamatti's Paul and Dominic Sessa's Tully. All three are stuck at a boarding school together over Christmas of 1970 - Mary is the chef, Paul is the teacher assigned to look after the students left behind, and Tully is literally the only kid unable to leave for the holidays.

To say Paul and Tully initially dislike each other is an understatement, though - to be fair - both rub just about everyone the wrong way. Paul is something of a loner fixated on his responsibilities as an educator despite viewing pretty much all his students as spoiled, entitled brats. His students, understandably, hate his guts, as do most of the faculty and staff. Mary is something of an exception, as the two share a similar disdain for those blindly profiting from the classist and racist system that pushed Mary's son into the military while shielding the rich, mostly white students from similar danger. 

Tully is constantly pushing almost everyone's buttons, though it's worth noting he's also shown to be surprisingly empathetic. He reaches out to a couple of younger students being bullied early on and has similar disdain for those who go through life oblivious to their privilege. A large portion of the movie is concerned with him and Paul gradually realizing they're not at all different from each other - in a sense, they could almost be two versions of the same character at different points in their life (only in a figurative sense, mind you; this is a grounded dramedy, not a Christmas fantasy).

Eventually, Tully convinces Paul to bring him to Boston, a place he's expressed interest in several times over the course of the movie. While there, the two bond further, and we finally find out why Tully's so interested in the city when he visits his father in a mental institution. We learn that Tully's been shuffled around from schools since his father was diagnosed, and - if he's thrown or pulled out of his current location - his next stop is a military academy.

Likewise, we get some more information on Paul's background. After graduating from the same school he still teaches at, Paul was thrown out of Harvard following a cheating allegation where his side of the story was disregarded in favor of a wealthier kid's. Paul dreams of traveling to Europe and writing, but he lacks either the drive or courage.

When they return to school, Paul and Tully are summoned to the headmaster's. Tully's visit to see his father resulted in serious complications for Tully's mother and new husband, who want answers. Paul realizes he has a choice: blame Tully for the incident and keep his job or falsely claim the visit was his idea, which will lead to his firing but keep Tully enrolled. Paul opts for the latter, and is fired in the process. At the end, he and Tully say a brief farewell, and Paul drives away, presumably to follow his dreams.

What's most striking about The Holdovers is its style - in virtually every way imaginable, the movie is scripted, shot, edited, scored, and performed in a manner reminiscent of films released during the era it's set. It wants to feel like a movie released in the early 1970s and damned if it doesn't follow through. Alexander Payne's direction is fantastic, as are the leads' performances.

The primary use of the holidays is, of course, as a juxtaposition for the overwhelming sense of depression surrounding the characters and their predicaments. We see the weight the three of them are bearing as they attempt to navigate a season of ostensible joy while contending with their own trauma, disappointment, and bleak outlooks toward the future. It's only together that they manage to find any glimmer of hope.

Well, it's together that Paul and Tully find hope. While Mary is a positive force in both their lives, it's not clear they have much to offer her, try as they might. Her peace is obtained more through a visit with her pregnant sister than anything having to do with the other two. This sequence has some resonance with themes tying the setting back to the whole "Christ child" motif, though the movie doesn't make a huge deal out of it.

In fact, Paul's atheism is a recurring character beat (and occasional punchline). The movie doesn't seem interested in disabusing him of this philosophy, either, which makes for a nice change of pace in Christmas media.

A slightly less obvious use of the holidays comes in the form of the sort of "liminal time" existing around Christmas. I mentioned that Paul and Tully function as sort of reflections of each other through time, an idea with a great deal of history around holiday stories. The movie plays with this throughout, but it's most apparent at the ending, when they part as friends. When Paul watches Tully dash away, you feel as if he's silently drawing the same connection, as if he's saying farewell to his younger self. I'm not suggesting this was referencing the scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge sees himself as a young man, but it's certainly reminiscent of versions I've seen (right down to Tully's long, black coat).

On a less serious note, The Holdovers also has a few trivial connections to other Christmas movies. This is, by my count, the third Paul Giamatti movie we've looked at here, after Fred Claus and All is Bright. It feels unnecessary to point out all three feature him depressed over the holidays, since... I mean... are there any Paul Giamatti movies where he doesn't spend most of the runtime in a state of perpetual depression (other than The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I mean)? But I will point out all three are fantastic films, at least for my money (I realize our take on Fred Claus is a bit outside the norm, but I stand behind it).

On a more bizarre front, The Holdovers has numerous similarities to The Sacrifice Game, though I want to acknowledge they're all pretty superficial. Both movies were released in 2023, are set in Massachusetts boarding schools in the early 1970s over Christmas break, revolve around protagonists depressed about being in said situation, and were shot and edited in manners intended to resemble movies of the same era (an era that was notably light on actual holiday films of its own, I'd add). Again, this is all surface-level stuff, but it's bizarre we got both so close together.

None of that matters, of course - I just find it interesting. What does matter is that The Holdovers is an effective, touching, funny film well worth tracking down. This is one of the better movies of last year (or at least of the subset I had time to see), and - assuming you're in the mood for something a bit melancholy - highly recommended.