top of page

The Holdovers

Focus Features, 2023


David Hemingson / Alexander Payne

Reading Time:

6 minutes

The HoldoversBright Sunny Day (G7U0H1UMMC4MVGLG)
00:00 / 06:04

📷 : Used with permission, Agustin R. Michel

The Holdovers


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows in cold weather and blizzard conditions


Image of movie's tea brew

Movies and TV shows with heart, positive vibes, and warm messages

Chris Chaisson


If you’re an avid TV watcher, you’re most likely familiar with the term “bottle episode.” It often refers to an anomalous episode in a series where two or more characters are stuck together due to some extenuating circumstance (i.e. locked in a room, stuck in an elevator). Often, the two characters have nothing in common or even have an adversarial relationship, and over the course of the episode, they learn not only more about each other’s interests but all of the ways they’ve misunderstood one another. This story device can make for either a memorable, compelling episode (i.e. “The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men) or, in other cases, the absolute worst episode of a series (I’ll be nice). Sometimes, it forever changes the relationship while other times, like in most episodic sitcoms, the segment is of zero consequence. Alexander Payne’s newest film, The Holdovers, serves as a heartwarming example of such a story device, indeed having a lasting effect on its main characters.

Set in the early 1970s, The Holdovers revolves around Paul (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), a long-tenured boarding school teacher, and one of his students, Angus (Dominic Sessa). As Christmas break approaches, the headmaster assigns Paul to remain at the school to supervise the students who cannot return home. What starts out as a handful of students quickly dwindles to just Angus once the other children leave. Over the course of two weeks, Paul and Angus become more well acquainted and develop an unlikely friendship, with the help of the lead chef, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, On the Come Up).

The age gap and the student-teacher dynamic are enough to make Paul and Angus’s initial discord believable. On top of that, it is clear that Paul has developed a disdain for his students. Near the beginning of the film, he strolls through the classroom humming a tune as he places graded tests on each student’s desk. His apparent bliss as he delivers their subpar scores suggests that he takes delight in their underperformance. Paul offers them the opportunity for a makeup quiz, which Angus rejects due to the difficulty of learning new material right before holiday break. Paul rescinds the offer and tells everyone to thank Angus for their bad grades, making him unpopular with his classmates. Though his response is somewhat warranted, Paul’s schadenfreude suggests he enjoys seeing his pupils struggle. As the story progresses, he reveals that he views the boarding school students as being born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Their privilege makes it hard for him to feel much empathy on the surface, a prejudice that Mary helps him to shed over time.

Angus serves as just the co-lead to change Paul’s perspective. He is a child of divorce and has been kicked out of school before. Should it happen again, he will be sent to military school, a thought he dreads. His initially pompous disposition causes Paul to view him the same way as his peers, but Angus opens up about his own interests while coaxing Paul into both personal conversations and more spontaneous decisions. By nature, Paul is a shut-in with his own degree of pretentiousness. Underneath it, he lacks self-confidence about anything outside of academia and even certain elements within it, revealed later in the film. Initially pressed into more open conversation by Angus, Paul starts to voluntarily share details about himself and his past. Despite previously coming across as stuck-up, Angus reveals himself to be not only curious but free of judgment, encouraging Paul to be more of an open book.

Mary serves as the go-between for both Paul and Angus. Despite her role in Paul and Angus’s life, she has her own troubles and family issues independent of them. As the lead cook in the school, she copes with the recent loss of her twenty-something son, who had attended the boarding school before joining the military. Though more down-to-earth and frank than Paul, Mary still disguises the pain that she feels on a regular basis from her loss, which comes out at inopportune moments. She feels a connection to Paul, who regularly defends her against classist remarks from the students. Playing the mediator, she serves as Paul’s conscience whenever he wants to dismiss any requests from Angus or retreat into his biases on what he views as trust fund babies. 

While the holidays can often be a melancholy time for those estranged from their families, it can also serve as a much-needed recess from the hustle and bustle of our routines. This timeout allows us to re-assess our relationships and possibly come out on the other side with a different perspective on the people we share our space with, be they colleagues, friends or family. As with the aforementioned bottle episodes, The Holdovers serves as a great reminder not to judge a book by its cover. As the old saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” (Ian Maclaren). Though Angus has an initial view of Paul as a curmudgeon standing in the way of what he wants, he decides to be more understanding, likely brought on by the absence of his fellow students and school routines. Similarly, Paul realizes that Angus, and by extension any one of his other students, could be experiencing a turbulent personal life regardless of their financial advantages. 

The Holdovers seems very similar to the odd couple pairings of Up or Good Will Hunting. By unlikely circumstance, two characters who are polar opposites get stuck together and slowly see the potential that each other possesses. At a time where it can be easy to profile and vilify those of privilege, such stories allow for three-dimensionality among all of us.

Sign-up for new reviews, exclusives, deep dives, and more

Thanks for joining us!

bottom of page