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'The Holdovers': A Charming, Bittersweet Christmas Tale in Words and Music

| December 22, 2023 | By

With faith, food and family, music is one of the major components of Christmas, evoking feelings and memories (even "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" has its adherents). Director Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, now in theaters (but coming to Peacock on Dec. 29), combines an affecting story with evocative tunes to craft a bittersweet but still touching Christmas tale.

Hymns and Carols

 The film begins at the end of the fall semester. Western Civics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) doles out the graded final exams and the sad news of the students’ poor grades.

Angus, an exception, having earned a “B+”, nevertheless has a mouth about him that gets the rest of the class assigned work over break. The boys begrudgingly trudge through the snow to the campus chapel.

The period film takes place in 1971, when the mainstream Protestant minister is not afraid to say Jesus Christ and to pray for the repose of the soul of a recently deceased graduate, the son of the school’s head cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

During this first sequence, Christmas hymns and carols -- "Silent Night," "Carol of the Drum" (aka "The Little Drummer Boy" -- play throughout. This signifies the formal part of the film. Barton Boarding School is a proud Christian institution; the entire community gathers in obligation, regardless of one’s personal creed.

Christmas Songs

Five of the students stay behind over Christmas break, a motely crew known as the holdovers. In every instance aside from the Korean exchange student (Jim Kaplan), we ascertain their parents neglect them.

In the film’s sole contrived, on-the-nose moment, a helicopter parent quite literally swoops in with his helicopter, whisking them away for a weeklong skiing trip. Only Angus, Paul, and Mary remain.

On Christmas Eve, a school administrator (Carrie Preston) invites the three to her Christmas party. Whereas the communal prayer I mentioned earlier was compulsory for the characters, the trio voluntarily attends this festivity.

A niece (Darby Lee-Stack) of the hosting family introduces Angus to the family’s art traditions surrounding the holiday.

At his point in the film, songs switch to familiar secular tunes, punctuated by Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” As characters personally bring Christmas into their hearts, we hear the American songs that, too, brought Christmas into our culture.

Secular songs

As the New Year approaches, Paul takes Mary and Angus on a school-authorized field trip to Boston. After dropping off Mary at her sister’s, the trio becomes a duo.

Without revealing too much, we learn both Angus and Paul’s backstories. Angus begins to come of age. Life away from Barton (again, serving literally and figuratively as the Church) can be an embittered place. Paul knows this. Angus begins to discover this.

The teacher encourages the student: yes, he’s rough around the edges, but still a work in progress and inherently bright. Here, we hear secular songs that mirror the time away from Barton. “The Wind” by Cat Stevens plays, along with other seminal songs from the 70s.

God still accompanies the pair, but in a less formalized, subtle manner. Listen and they might hear them in the poetic lyrics.

Putting the Christ(like Behavior) Back Into Christmas

Over the course of the film, Mary and Paul stand in loco parentis for Angus. Especially, Paul, who’s had disappointments of his own in his past, becomes a mentor to his young student, opening Angus’ mind (and opening his own heart in the bargain).

Although Paul is emphatically not a religious person, it’s ultimately in an act of self-sacrifice that he becomes truly free of his past, while saving Angus’ future.

Telling a Story in Words and Music

In the end, Angus confronts his greatest apprehension and makes it through. His personal arc seems to be Payne’s (and composer Mark Orton’s).

I feel Payne’s story becomes semi-autobiographical as it nears the end, as the director did attend prep schools (but not boarding ones) in his native Omaha, Nebraska -- and graduated from Creighton Prep, a Jesuit high school.

Angus returns to Barton, matured, and renewed; a new man, if you will. The score then reflects this very personal and original journey. The Holdovers, in its particularity, represents the universal, too.

Formal, overt experiences of God abound in the same amount as unbidden, unseen manifestations of God. Fittingly, music follows in lyrics both sacred and profane.

The Holdovers is rated R for language, some drug use, and brief sexual material, so it's best suited for mature high-schoolers and up.


Image: (L-R) Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph. CREDIT: Focus Features

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