Culture, Film

Film review: The Holdovers – 70s nostalgia and ivy league romanticism

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Featured image: Seacia Pavao © 2023 Focus Features LLC

The Holdovers immerses us within the charming world of the 1970s. Snow falls onto the gothic buildings of Barton Academy – a private boarding school that fosters the children of America’s elite.

Accompanying the image is a warm analogue score, including artists Cat Stevens, Chet Baker and Labi Siffre. It’s a scene of dark academia romance that fans of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ might recognise.

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The interior of the school isn’t quite as cosy. Pubescent teenagers wrestle through hallways – stealing cigarettes, insulting each other’s mums and engaging in frequent fist fights. Here, ‘The Holdovers’ tells the less romantic reality behind boarding schools; young kids abandoned by their parents and dropped into private education’s remorseless hierarchy.

Angus Tully, the film’s student protagonist, is resemblant of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye: disdained by his peers, in trouble with his parents and on the cusp of exclusion (and bootcamp).

Before the start of Christmas Break, Angus’ mother calls to inform him that she will be spending Christmas on honeymoon, leaving Angus as a holdover at Barton Academy. A true Christmas nightmare, Angus must spend the holiday at school with the world’s unhappiest man: his Classics teacher.

Paul Giamatti (Straight Outta Compton, The Hangover 2) is typecast as the classics teacher who has no life outside of inflicting misery onto his students. Giamatti succeeds in embodying the teacher we know so well with his sardonic wit, sadistic strictness and a chip on his shoulder that makes him hunch. Kicked out of Harvard as a sacrifice for an elitist student who cheated on his test, Mr Hunman has little sympathy for Barton’s “brats”. He holds tight onto past grievances caused by the unfair system of elitism, a characteristic told through his incessant recital of Latin phrases.

Da’vine Joy Randolph’s portrayal of Mary Lamb is the star performance. The canteen head chef is another lonely soul tied to the school over Christmas. She grieves for her son – a victim of the Vietnam war – who she’d last spent time with at the school when he was a student. A bottle of whisky and a constant cigarette keep her company. Despite her deep wounds, Mary offers the most sympathy, bringing the characters together into the frame as a reluctant family. She guides Mr Hunman into the needed role of father figure, saying that even though the kids are “assholes”, “everybody deserves to be with their people at Christmas”.

On paper, this film is a Hollywood stereotype that’s been told before. With its hungry nostalgia for the 70s, ivy league romanticisation and strict teacher/troubled student duo, this film appears to be another sentimental flick like The Dead Poet’s Society. However, the performances of the main cast are what cut through these stereotypes, offering characters full of depth and authenticity. With the aid of intelligent writing, the bond these characters form as a reluctant family elicits equal amounts of tears, laughter and nostalgia from the audience. Even if most of us students are too young to have experienced the time, The Holdovers has us pining for the 1970s, and the secret world of Barton Academy at Christmas.

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Kieron Hoysted

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