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Movie Review: The Holdovers

Jada Jonassaint

Last semester, I decided to check out “The Holdovers” in an attempt to get into the holiday spirit. It’s directed by Alexander Payne, a director whom I am personally unfamiliar with though I have heard about; he is known for his films Election (1999) and About Schmidt (2002). 

“The Holdovers” tells the tale of one Paul Hunham, a grizzly professor at Barton Academy, a prestigious boarding school. Particularly, he is served the task of watching over a group of students left behind during winter break. The most notable of these students is Angus Tully. 

I am not one to comment on an actor’s performance, though I did find the delivery in “The Holdovers” to be odd at times. Tully, played by Dominic Sessa, is portrayed initially as being sarcastic and witty through his relationship with another student. This is emphasized later in the film where Tully is shown to be quite charismatic and quick on his feet, lying on Hunham’s behalf at various points. I felt that Sessa had a way of altering his inflection in a way that Tully sounded aloof which was rather off-putting, especially combined with some of the dialogue. 

For instance, there’s a moment where Tully is accused of stealing cigarettes and he boldly counters by proclaiming “I resent that baseless accusation,” erasing any semblance of tension from the scene because of how out of pocket the line felt. I even googled it, figuring it must be some sort of reference, but it wasn’t. Similar instances happened frequently, making it difficult to engage with the characters. 

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Ironically, this same aloofness is what made me enjoy Paul Giamatti as Hunham so much. It added a lot of humanity and charm to the strict teacher, making him rather likable as the film progressed. Hunham is portrayed as being strict in his adherence to tradition and discipline. Though, his unlikely camaraderie later with Tully brings him out of his shell. 

While I did enjoy Hunham’s character, the writing felt rather lazy. The group of students that Tully is with at the beginning of the film is written out of the script when one of their fathers ‘conveniently’ offers to take them on a ski trip. It is established that Tully and Hunham cannot leave the school causing tension as the two are seemingly forced to be in close proximity. This rule and its impact are immediately broken as the duo leaves the school multiple times.

At this point, I was rather unimpressed by “The Holdovers.” While it isn’t a bad movie, it’s not the best either. I do feel that its discussion of mental health and grief did make it stand out. The discussion of how these issues present themselves in everyday life was very multifaceted which surprised me. 

Tully is later revealed to be taking antidepressants when his prescription falls out of his pocket. While this doesn’t excuse his troublemaking tendencies, it does explain them. The boy tries to pass off the medicine as a vitamin for ‘low energy’ though this doesn’t fool Hunham. Why? Hunham takes the same antidepressant. 

This moment was very powerful to me. I appreciated how it didn’t lead to some chintzy moment between the two. Tully’s shame and avoidance speaks for itself as a comment on the need to destigmatize mental illness. 

A similar discussion is also introduced through the character Mary, who is grieving for her son who died serving in Vietnam. Mary isolates herself from the group and when she does break down, she refuses to accept any comfort. Rather, she insists she is strong enough to overcome her grief with no help.

Depression and grief are more than just being sad. These emotions can also be feeling angry, happy, isolated, etc. which is something that the film understands and capitalizes on. These moments are brief and give insight into what I wish “The Holdovers” could have had more of as they show high levels of emotional intelligence. 

Personally, I would give this film three out of five stars. There are definitely other movies that pull off its tropes more effectively though “The Holdovers” had a very meaningful discussion of mental health. 

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