The Nineteen-Seventies of “The Holdovers” Is Conveniently Sanitized

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Turning toward the past is value-neutral. I’m apt to use the word “nostalgia” pejoratively, but the wish to turn back the hands of time is no worse than any other; with movies, it’s a matter of being clear about what one misses and why. Alexander Payne’s new film, “The Holdovers,” is a period piece, set in the last weeks of 1970, at an all-boys prep school in Massachusetts. Curiously, though, the film is more than just a depiction of that time—it’s made to resemble a popular Hollywood movie from that period. The format and style of the head credits are explicitly borrowed from that era, down to the look and placement of its R rating logo. Though the movie was shot digitally, it’s given artificial grain and even faux scratches to make it look as if it were both shot and released on film. Above all, “The Holdovers” returns to a way of telling a story that reflects what, to Payne, comes off as a simpler, clearer, perhaps more humane time.

Whether it was ever really so or not is secondary; the prime question is how meaningfully Payne’s movie makes the case. He does so with a blend of intelligence and emotion—a clever selection of familiar elements and an earnest investment in their dramatic power. The movie is a pile of clichés reprocessed with such loving immediacy that it feels as if Payne were discovering them for himself. Situations are blatantly button-pushing but realized with such heartfelt sincerity that he seems not to be manipulating viewers but sharing with them the very feelings that he stokes. The emotional realm itself is a warm bath of wide-ranging empathy, yet it’s delivered with some narrative trickery reminiscent of classic movies—and sharing in some of their falsehoods and deceptions.

At Barton Academy, a boarding school, the Christmas season is an ordeal for a handful of people forced to spend it together (and they’re not even family). Five boys are stuck at the school, unable to go home, whether owing to familial disorder or, in the case of a Korean boy, distance. Annually, one teacher is obliged to stay with such holiday “holdovers,” and Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a fiftysomething teacher of ancient history, is this year’s disconsolate monitor. The school’s youthful headmaster (Andrew Garman)—a former pupil of Paul’s—apparently chose him as punishment for having flunked a senator’s son. Paul is both strict and pedantic, with a haughty and sarcastic manner. He grades stringently and has little patience with his students’ playful energy and no interest in their personalities or their lives. He’s a teacher of his subject, not a teacher of his students, not least because he takes them to be spoiled rich kids. He’s curmudgeonly, but leftist curmudgeonly, seething with resentment at the presumed privileges and arrogant assumptions of wealth and class. Still, he has spent his entire career at Barton, from which he is a graduate; in effect, he exhibits intellectual failure to launch. Universally mocked and disliked, Paul is a year-round bearer of bad cheer and a walking bundle of woe. Some of the woes he bears are secrets that are as carefully guarded by Payne as hole cards in a poker game. But others are conspicuous and figure prominently in the plot: Paul has strabismus (behind his back, his students call him “Walleye”) and also trimethylaminuria, a metabolic condition that gives him a strong fishy body odor.

A helicopter ex machina that belongs to the father of one of the students lands on school grounds and whisks the boys away on a ski trip—all except Angus (Dominic Sessa), an obstreperous student whose mother and stepfather are on honeymoon and can’t be reached to grant permission. Now Angus is stuck with Paul over break, along with two other school employees: the school custodian, Danny (Naheem Garcia), and the cafeteria’s chief cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a Black woman in mourning for her son, Curtis, a recent graduate of the school who, earlier in the year, died in the Vietnam War. Mary and Paul strike up a quick friendship of convenience that has deeper roots in pain and sympathy. When Angus accidentally injures himself, the results are physically minor but dramatically major, giving the plot a centrifugal kick—hospital, bar, party—that tantalizes the trio with elusive festivity. Then, as they find themselves back at school, forlornly celebrating Christmas, Angus lifts the mood with a bright idea: perhaps Paul could take him to Boston? Paul, at first dubious, decides that it can be justified as a field trip (and even school-financed), and Mary comes along for the ride in order to visit a sister in Roxbury. What results, unsurprisingly, is a series of adventures and encounters that force Paul and Angus to face and give voice to the sources of their deep-rooted pain. As each learns the specific secret griefs that have made the other so bitter and hostile, we viewers belatedly learn, along with them, what specific traumas have determined the entire course of the action. In the process, the two forge a deep bond, of major practical consequence, that proves Paul’s virtues as a teacher and sets Angus on a constructive path.

Payne’s movie is back-loaded, holding its crucial information about how Paul and Angus got like this until near the end. In so doing, it takes for granted that its main characters’ flaws are indeed traceable to a single dramatic key that was turned in the past. (Angus’s, unsurprisingly, involves the absence of his father and the presence of his new stepfather.) But this reliance on backstory feels questionable, a narrative convenience. The things Paul and Angus reveal are of course things they already know and doubtless think about from time to time. Do neither of them have friends in whom they can confide? By phone call or letter? (Even the socially isolated Paul is ultimately revealed to have at least one good friend elsewhere.) The calculated silences and cagey revelations result in a movie of truncated characters, with truncated subjectivity, trimmed to fit the Procrustean confines of the script.

The prime truncation involves history itself—the inescapable din of news that keeps the turbulent politics and public life of the time at the forefront of attention. The Vietnam War shows up as a cruel infliction on those drafted to fight in it, and the injustice of it is the class-based inequality of the draft, as its student deferments allow the moneyed to avoid service. (Deferments were phased out in 1971.) But there’s no context, no sense that there were protests nationwide—maybe even at Barton or in its nearest town. There’s no sense that not only the war—but opposition to it—was controversial and that taking a stand against it, though well within the intellectual mainstream, remained outside the purview of much of national media. There’s no inkling of the Kent State killings and other attacks on antiwar protesters, no mention of the My Lai massacre. There’s no hint in the movie of any political conflicts involving race, no suggestion of controversy regarding abortion, the rights of gay people, nothing about “women’s lib.” Yet it was impossible to be alive at the time, even as a teen-ager, and not be aware of these things. (The omission is exemplary of Payne’s humanistic mission: he sets Angus up to be, as Paul says, “smart” but not “brilliant,” and the lessons that the young man learns from his new personal bond with his scholarly teacher aren’t intellectual but social, practical, ethical.)

Not only does this hermetically sealed, historically reduced drama falsify the times in which the movie is set, it falsifies the characters and turns them into automata of the plot’s mechanism. The effect is also felt in the performances, or, rather, in Payne’s direction of them, as he guides Giamatti to stay at the level of familiar (albeit appealing) shtick and the prodigiously talented Sessa to overemphasize every one of the few traits that the script allows his role—he gets to flaunt his skill, not his personality. In avoiding the conflicts of the era, Payne also deflects conflicts of today: his blandly apolitical view of the early seventies seems almost designed not to trouble consciences or spark debates. That’s the real core of the movie’s nostalgia: it’s a cinematic nostalgia for an earlier generation’s coddled mainstream, one fabricated by Hollywood’s calculated suppression of whatever might risk controversy too wide or serious to be monetized.

Payne’s omissions and elisions turn out to be more than just a matter of the current events of 1970. There’s another, altogether more personal and more fraught kind of filtering and silencing built into “The Holdovers,” one that echoes with today’s social conflicts. Without spoilers, suffice it to say that the movie’s key revelations pivot on an accusation—after which two people were summoned before the authorities, who took one person’s word over the other’s, seemingly wrongly, solely on the basis of social status and assumed credibility, and the upshot of the resulting scandal proved to be of mighty consequence, determining the entire course of Paul’s life. (For those who aren’t spoiler-averse, the New York Times offers a video clip of the key scene in question). Seeing the movie, with its accusation-centered plot point, I recalled that, in 2020, Rose McGowan accused Payne of committing statutory rape, claiming that Payne had a sexual encounter with her when she was fifteen. (This allegedly occurred in the late nineteen-eighties, when Payne was in his late twenties). Payne denied the allegations. I find a reflection of this situation in the big reveal in “The Holdovers”—and in the way that it’s resolved, namely, with a gentlemen’s agreement to keep the story involving the accusation, whatever its truth, a secret. That’s what comes off as the movie’s key object of nostalgia: the time when personal matters stayed private. ♦


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