Upon first glance, this period piece, directed by Alexander Payne and set in a New England prep school over the 1970/71 Christmas break gives off a whiff of the boarding school classic DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989). Yet it quickly morphs into a very different film which goes in totally unexpected directions.
The boarding school here is Barton Academy, which was founded in the eighteenth century and isn’t exactly changing with the times. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is the curmudgeonly ancient history teacher at Barton who has been saddled with the responsibility of taking care of the students who won’t be going home for the Christmas holiday. Among these “holdovers” for the Christmas break are those whose families live in other countries and think it’s too far to go home.
Himself a Barton alum, Hunham is given a handbook, keys to the school, and a fancy bottle of whiskey to see him through the two weeks he is in charge. While most of the staff and other teachers are gone during the break, the school’s head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is staying on campus through the holiday, partly because this is the first Christmas since her son, one of the few black students at Barton, was killed in Vietnam. Barton is the last place the two of them spent time together.
Among the boys holding over is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) who originally had holiday plans that most certainly didn’t include spending Christmas at school.
Holding over is no fun for the students. The heat is cut off to the dormitories, so they are all bunking together in the infirmary. There are no new deliveries of food while most of the school is gone, so they are making do with what is left in the walk-in and the pantry. Holiday cheer is in very short supply, while rigorous exercise plans and extra schoolwork abound for these “Barton Men.”
The further we get into the story the less it becomes about the circumstances of the holiday. The film morphs into an unlikely tale of an unlikely family: one created by circumstance but maintained by choice. Sessa, whose only acting experience prior to this film was his school plays, is by turns aggravating and charming as the brilliant and troubled Tully. This is his first film. It’s doubtful that this will be his last.
Shot entirely on location in Massassachetus at five different schools, the New England setting gives the film a distinct yankee flavor. It feels very Boston-centric with the inclusion of a cameo by Italian food chain “The Chateau” and a trip to the regional sport of “candlepin bowling.” Wintery and bleak and freezing cold New England is captured at its snowy best by Cinematographer Eigil Bryld.
It’s not surprising that Giametti is pitch perfect at his skewering of elite New England academia, as the actor is from that world. Yale called him “a son of Yale in every sense” when they were giving him his honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 2023. His father was president of Yale University and he himself is a graduate of the prep school Choate Rosemary Hall as well as Yale College and Yale School of Drama. Sessa also knows the boarding school setting well, as he is a 2022 graduate of Deerfield Academy in Western Mass.
While the film is charming and engaging and well suited to its holiday release, it isn’t perfect. Though the film was shot on location there are still whiffs of modernity–like background things just look too clean and modern for 70s New England and the lack of old-school neon in the illuminated signs– that poke through, reminding us that this film wasn’t actually made in the early 1970s. But if you aren’t overly familiar with that region of the US in that era, those small inconsistencies would likely not be a distraction.
Problematically, there is a shoulder dislocation of one of the characters in the film, an injury that usually results in the limb being immobilized for weeks. Yet here the character only briefly appears in a sling for a moment after a trip to the hospital and seems to fully recover in moments! Medicine works differently in the movies, I suppose?
Even with those minor hiccups, this is the unlikely arthouse holiday movie you didn’t know you needed.
THE HOLDOVERS is now playing in theaters. This review from Anna Hanks was from her screening at the recent Austin Film Festival.