Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers finds an exquisite balance between charming and depressing. Set in 1970 at a New England boarding school for privileged rich kids to get into even richer universities, we follow Paul Hunham (Paul Giamati) a professor of ancient civilizations at Barton Academy and Angus (Dominic Sessa), one of his students “held over” during the Christmas holiday. Calloused, lonesome, bitter people at their best, the pair sour every room with their blunt honesty and improper social etiquette at worst.
Familiar but refreshingly complex for a comedy duo, their personalities clash in the obvious ways; the rambunctious and naive student against the rigid and traditional professor naturally contradict each other. But while their verbal sparring provokes a majority of the comedy, the strongest belly laughs come when they break from their roles and the comedy shines from their harmony rather than conflict. Those moments when Paul and Angus are caught with their pants down demonstrates how much both professor and student are willing to bend their own rules to avoid the consequences.
But more revealing than the act of bending the rules, is how quickly they are to do it. While out exploring Boston Paul runs into an old schoolmate and without a second thought lies about nearly every aspect of his current life, which Angus finds amusing and proceeds to join him in the fabrication. It’s similar to an earlier scene where Angus initiates a lie and Paul reluctantly joins him. When compared, both scenes use the same dynamic in different emotional contexts to emphasize the parallels between the characters. They’re insecure and ashamed of their lives to the point that lying about the past has become second nature.
Something quite unique for a film with this tone is how much specificity there is to the melancholy. Coming-of-age movies are usually satisfied with showing us how trauma in a broad scope affects our lives, but there’s a concerted effort in The Holdovers to show the outcome of a dysfunctional relationship between parents and their kids. Angus and Hunham have been rejected by familial love yet, while Hunham has chosen to accept the world as a loveless place, Angus is young and desperate to cling to the remnants of love in his family. They represent each other in different stages of their lives and that revelation makes the conclusion of the film more impactful.
The Holdovers offers a departure from the expectations of those who may remember the glut of similarly positioned films from the early 2000s which focused on the external effects of kindness. However, because Hunham and Angus suffer from parallel perspectives and grief, their outward behaviors are reflected as internal growth. As far as we can tell, they may always be cynical and lonely; bitter and contrarian to the very end, a sort of emotional shield protecting their egos. Perhaps the meaningful change in their relationship signals they’ve learned to forgive themselves and continue their lives with a greater sense of agency.