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Amanda Bergeman December 06, 2023
Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti star in a scene from the movie “The Holdovers.” (OSV News photo/Seacia Pavao, Focus Features)Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti star in a scene from the movie “The Holdovers.” (OSV News photo/Seacia Pavao, Focus Features)

“The Holdovers,” an unassuming little indie movie, may be the best Christmas film of the season. It is a character-driven drama about unlikely friendships born of shared proximity. A crotchety professor, an angsty student and a grieving cook have the misfortune of spending their holidays at an empty boarding school while most of the students are home celebrating with their families.

In the tradition of“It’s a Wonderful Life,” most of this movie is sad—funny, poignant and endearing, but still sad. The three characters are all pitiably lonely, and the social gatherings of the holidays make their isolation glaringly obvious. But it is only in facing this loneliness that they can forge connections.

“The Holdovers” showcases the sacrificial love required to create harmony with whatever family surrounds us during the holiday season.

Paul Giamatti’s character, Professor Paul Hunham, is a man most acquainted with loneliness. He’s generally cranky and off-putting and, if that weren’t enough to keep people at bay, he even has a medical condition that makes him smell bad. He seems to revel in his prickliness, often making people unhappy or uncomfortable on purpose. He is the Grinch who has decided if people want nothing to do with him, then he wants nothing to do with people. Still, he cannot help but empathize with the grieving mother Mary Lamb, who just lost her son in Vietnam.

Lamb is a working-class cook who serves the privileged boys of Barton Academy in beautiful, snowy New England. She’s been working there for years so that her son could have the opportunity to attend the fine, expensive institution, but his bright future has been cut short by the war. Mary is the heart of the film. Her grace under the pains of misfortune puts life into perspective. As a black woman in 1970, Mary has fewer opportunities than either of the men, but she excels in creating fruitful, loving and selfless relationships. Mary can’t help softening to the lost soul of Angus Tully, the last student left at Barton over the holidays.

Paul Giamatti’s character, Professor Paul Hunham, is a man most acquainted with loneliness.

Tully is an angsty teenager, expelled from multiple schools before we meet him at Barton. His mother leaves him to go on a honeymoon with her new husband, and his father’s absence informs a large part of his journey in the film. Paul sees him as an over-privileged brat, but Mary sees the lonely child beneath the hardened exterior. She softens them both enough to create a makeshift Christmas at Barton.

Most of the film may be secular, but it has an affection for Christianity. Mary, the most likable of the “holdovers,” is Christian, and Paul’s atheism seems to be a symptom of his intimacy-avoidance. Mary rolls her eyes when Paul boasts that the philosophy book he got them all for Christmas does not involve God at all. The titular holdovers may not spend their Christmas at Mass, but the film encapsulates the Christmas spirit of growing in relationship with each other.

The three make an unlikely trio, but the performances are so lived-in and authentic that you can’t help falling in love with the lot of them. The film explores the melancholy and joy of the holidays through these three lonely people.

Perhaps the filmmaker is reflecting on lessons learned post-pandemic. Our need for community has never been more apparent. As pack animals, we have an inherent need to trust, be vulnerable and love one another, even when that love has hurt us in the past. We cannot help making families anywhere we go, and we get depressed when we are unable to do so. We crave isolation only when we feel unwelcome and misunderstood by the people surrounding us.

True community requires patiently listening and meeting people where they are, even when that place is unpleasant. “The Holdovers” showcases the sacrificial love required to create harmony with whatever family surrounds us during the holiday season.

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