Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

‘The Holdovers’ Is a Beautiful Return to the Schoolboy Genre

4/5 Winter Breaks

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, we were obsessed with stories of boarding schools for boys. These coming-of-age films like Dead Poets Society and School Ties explored themes of prejudice, identity, and rebellion. But for some reason, the art of the schoolboy film died out. Gone was our obsession with the rich (and almost exclusively white) boys of the New England elite schools. And now, director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) is looking to revive the genre in his latest film, The Holdovers.

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The film, written by David Hemingson, takes us into the lives of the boys of Barton Academy during winter break in the early ’70s, when curmudgeonly teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) has to take care of the students who are left behind. The kids comprise a mixed bag: either left there as punishment from their parents or unable to travel home for the holidays. Then, there is Angus (Dominic Sessa). A kid who has been kicked out of several schools, Angus doesn’t really belong, despite clearly being smart enough for a school like Barton. His time there is fraught with hating his classmates and teachers.

Where The Holdovers shines is where all of these school-centric films thrive: in the relationships between the teachers and the students who need them the most. Paul isn’t a typical private school teacher and Angus isn’t your typical rich kid, so their dynamic is one that serves as the heart of the film. Their relationship begins as chaotic and aggressive, but that soon changes over the course of the winter break.

Changing for the better

HO_14151_RC Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
(Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

As is the case with many of these films, The Holdovers thrives in the personal relationships between its characters. School cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) rounds out the cast, and Randolph delivers another scene-stealing performance. While the film features a small cast, we get to spend time with these characters and watch them evolve over the course of the school break. Focusing solely on the holiday season means we get to see these relationships change in real-time. Paul’s relationship with Angus isn’t a “good” teacher-student relationship at the start. Angus hates him and, for the most part, most of the school does as well. But beneath both prickly characters lies a deep grief and a longing for human connection.

The only critiques I do have for the film are linked to jokes about Giamatti’s lazy eye, which is mocked by the students (it’s low-hanging fruit and unnecessary).

Overall, The Holdovers filled a hole in my heart that I often tried to fill by rewatching Dead Poets Society repeatedly. It’s a return to a nostalgic genre that I didn’t realize we’d fully left behind, and a beautiful look into what makes comig-of-age stories relevant.

(featured image: Focus Features)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her current obsession is Glen Powell's dog, Brisket. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.