Prep-School Nostalgia Reminisced in The Holdovers

The Holdovers
Directed by Alexander Payne
Miramax 2023, 133 minutes

According to the review by Chester E. Finn Jr.

Be warned: This review contains spoilers.

In this remarkable but representative movie, Paul Giamatti deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar solely based on his expressive face. Although his face isn’t particularly elastic, he skillfully uses it in his role as Mr. Hunham, a boarding-school teacher of classical civilizations in the year 1970. He effectively conveys various emotions, such as moods, anxieties, affection, rejection, superiority, and inferiority.

Giamatti’s outstanding performance, which has rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination, is one of three in this beautifully crafted portrayal of life in a traditional boys’ boarding school in New England during the Vietnam era, characterized by shaggy hair, marijuana, and other forms of rebellion against traditional authority.

However, the movie does not depict the typical campus life. As mentioned in other reviews, and in line with the film’s release around Christmas, the “holdovers” refer to a small group of students and adults who remain at the fictional Barton Academy when everyone else goes home for winter break. Five students are housed in the infirmary since the financially struggling school turns off the heating in other areas. They are under the care of the grumpy and irascible Mr. Hunham, who ends up with holiday duty as a consequence of failing the wealthy and influential alum’s son. This unfortunates group is served by Mary, played by the talented Da’Vine Joy Randolph (recently nominated for Best Supporting Actress), the Black head chef in the school’s kitchen, whose own son—a former Barton student—has recently died in the Vietnam War.

Twenty minutes into the film, four of the kids are rescued by a wealthy parent who arrives by helicopter to take them away on a ski vacation. However, Tully, portrayed by the young and gifted Dominic Sessa, remains behind and is left alone for the rest of the break with Mary and Mr. Hunham.

Each character has their own secrets, sorrows, and failures, and they encounter unique challenges. Yet, they unexpectedly come together in a way that proves to be mutually supportive, and by the end, each character becomes admirable and touching.

By all means, watch it. (However, be aware that there is ample profanity before allowing children to watch it with you.) As a portrayal of prep schools, view it as a sort of time capsule that skillfully brings to mind a period fifty years ago, when these campuses were significantly different from what they are today.

In those days, most prep schools were single-sex and primarily enrolled wealthy, white, American students from middle and upper-class families. There were strict dress codes, traditional curriculums, and predominantly lecture-style instruction. Discipline was harsh, and while sports were taken seriously, students’ emotions were largely ignored. The dining hall offered limited choices, and the food was mediocre, but smoking was allowed in the dormitory’s designated area.

Today, these schools have a very different feel. The ones I am familiar with are coed, and their student bodies are diverse in every imaginable way, including many students from other countries. Tuition for full-paying students is exorbitant, but a significant portion of students receive scholarships. If there is a dress code, it is fairly relaxed. Vegan options are plentiful. The curriculum includes a wide range of STEM, arts, and relevant topics such as the environment, race, and gender. Classrooms encourage participation, and extracurricular activities are abundant. The students are also scattered across various opportunities such as studying abroad or participating in programs like “semester in Washington.” Discipline policies allow for second, third, and possibly fourth chances. Furthermore, significant attention is given to students’ well-being, including their social, emotional, and physical health. Rather than adopting a sink-or-swim mentality or a pass-or-fail approach, these campuses have become more compassionate and prioritize helping students cope.

I am an old-fashioned hardliner who tends to believe that today’s prep schools have become soft and—similar to the elite colleges they mostly feed into—have become overly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, affirming everything, and excessively concerned about feelings. However, I must admit that when someone close to me enrolled in my alma mater thirty years later and struggled academically, I was extremely grateful that the school provided tutors and advisors to ensure her success. In my time, she probably would have been expelled. (She ended up graduating with honors.)

Tully’s expulsion from Barton Academy is imminent. However, in the end, Mr. Hunham comes to his rescue, albeit at great personal cost. Although the movie is set in the past, today’s audiences, especially during the holiday season, expect to experience humanity alongside excellent acting. The Holdovers delivers both in abundance.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

The article “Prep-School Nostalgia Evoked in The Holdovers” was originally published on Education Next.