My feelings on seeing The Holdovers were mixed. When I first watched the trailer and read subsequent reviews, I HAD to see this film because I love Alexander Payne’s work (Election and Sideways are in my collection) and the plot description (prep school teacher bonds with chef and student over Christmas break) was enticing; anything involving teaching hits close to home with me. But I read that all three leads had romantic interests, which was a big turn-off for me and an instant failure for my Singles Test.
However, I knew I’d regret not seeing it, and living in DC gives me the privilege of seeing certain films before they open in the theater. Susan, a fellow Community of Single People member and cinephile, was down to see it, so I knew I’d be in good company.
The plot description: Paul Giamatti plays an abrasive, arrogant history teacher at the posh Barton School in early 1970s Massachusetts who has to babysit a group of “holdovers,” or students who, for various reasons, can’t go home for the holidays. After a few days of putting them through forced physical exercise and assigning homework, one of the boys’ parents whisks them away in a helicopter to a ski trip. All but one, Angus, a brilliant but rebellious student whose parents are unreachable, as Mom is enjoying a luxurious vacation with her new husband. Also in the mix is Mary, the school’s head chef, who’s grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War.
Of course, their makeshift family causes all three characters to grow. Paul and Angus, in particular, learn about the hurts that linger underneath the bravado they force upon the people around them. Mary comes out of her grief-induced shell to be closer to her own family.
I said earlier that there were three romantic subplots, as per the review. Well, Payne teases in that direction, but then pulls back. Paul was never married, which was even more stigmatized in 1970 than it is now. He reveals to Angus he has trimethylaminuria, also known as “fish odor syndrome.” His body can’t break down trimethylamine, which causes him to smell like rotten fish at the end of the day. Angus’s response, “No wonder you’re afraid of women” is accurate despite Paul’s denial. He develops a crush on Lydia, a perky school administrator who tells him at the Christmas party to which she invites him, “You’re a great teacher when you want to be.” We sense a romantic subplot developing, but her boyfriend enters the party, at which Paul looks forlorn. As Susan put it in our post-film discussion, “That’s honest.” Yes. Most people can relate to Paul’s feeling at that moment.
Angus has an intimate moment with Lydia’s niece, Elise, below, but the kiss they share feels quick, as if Payne needed to insert that into the script. But they never see each other again, as far as we know. That’s more true-to-life than meeting instantly and falling in love, which is a common trope in non-romantic movie.
Mary’s husband died twenty years earlier, before her son was born. There’s a janitor, Danny, who repeatedly flirts with Elise, to which she’s resistant (in her grief-stricken state, she’s just not primed for romance). He hangs out with the trio and celebrates New Year’s Eve, but we don’t see him after that. Romance isn’t part of the equation for these three characters. Read no further if you plan to see the movie: Paul covers for Angus for a major incident involving his family, and is fired as a result. Having hidden at Barton his whole life, he goes out on the road to pursue some of the dreams and travels he’d talked about taking. Angus becomes less confrontational, as we see when he shows restraint with a nasty bully. Mary decides to put her money into a college fund for her niece, whom she’d previously avoided seeing due to the loss of her son.
I didn’t think I’d be inclined to include The Holdovers as a pro-single movie, but the plot threads really wrap it up nicely. Susan and I agreed that Payne nicely teased those romantic tropes to mess with audience expectations, only to pull back and realize: hey, it’s not about romance, it’s about growth. Given this finding about young adults’ wishes for less sex and romance in movies, it seems Payne got the memo early. Kudos to you, sir!