There is something so warm and comforting about The Holdovers that it will leave a smile on your face. The film unfolds during the 1970s at Barton Academy; it is Christmas time, and most students are excited to head back home. Angus Tully could not contain his excitement; after all, he was going to St. Kitts with his folks. Tully was a bright young boy with a decent academic track record. Even the strict professor of ancient history, Paul Hunham, could not score him below the average grade. Hunham held onto the traditional teaching methods, and as an ex-Barton, he believed it was his duty to help young men build good character. The students and even the staff disliked Paul, and he did not do anything to help change their perception of him. The only teacher who cared to bake Christmas cookies for Paul was fellow faculty member Lydia Crane. Paul was handed over the responsibility of looking after the boys who, for one reason or another, could not head back home. There were four boys on the list, but soon, a fifth member joined the sad troupe.
What helped Angus and Paul bond?
Angus had packed his bags and was ready to head to St. Kitts when his mother called and canceled on him. She explained that she and her husband, Stanley, barely had any time to spend together, so they decided to go on a honeymoon during Christmas. The news came as a shock to Angus, and even after repeatedly begging his mother to rethink the plan, she made it clear that Angus had to stay at his boarding school during the holidays. He joined the four boys with an equally terrible fate. To make matters worse, Hunham was appointed to look after them, and he intended to take lessons and keep the boys busy with assignments. Just when the boys had pretty much-accepted defeat, school football player Jason Smith’s father came to his son’s rescue and offered the rest of the boys a chance to join them on their skiing trip. Everyone else’s parents consented to it except for Tully’s. Even after repeatedly attempting to contact them, the calls went unreceived. After the boys left, it was only Angus, Paul, and Mary at the boarding school.
Mary Lamb was the manager of the school cafeteria, and after losing her son to the Vietnam War, she decided to spend Christmas at Barton. Watching the prep boys get away with everything while her son was forced to join the military was not easy for Mary. But she stayed back because Barton was where she and her son had last been together. The grief-stricken mother kept herself busy watching television and drinking her sorrows away. Angus was not ready to spend Christmas with two boring adults, so he tried to book himself a room at a nearby hotel. Hunham caught him in the act and chased him to the gymnasium, and Angus ended up dislocating his shoulder. Humhum was worried about losing his job, and Angus stepped in to make sure the rigid old man was left unaffected. The incident helped the professor and the student bond as individuals. Hunham could sense where Angus’ aggression was coming from, and he sympathized with the young man. The two ended up having cheeseburgers together and candidly discussing life and the war.
After finding out about Lydia Crane’s Christmas party, Angus insisted on attending. Hunham was attracted to Lydia, but he was socially awkward and wanted to stay back on campus. After both Angus and Mary insisted on attending the party, Hunham agreed to join them. Angus took an interest in Lydia’s niece, Elise, and followed her to the basement while Mary chose the corner near the music area and listened to the songs she and her son danced to. At the party, Paul found out that Lydia was with someone else, and it did not come as a big disappointment to him. Paul never really believed he had a chance with her, but somehow, Angus’ encouragement made him feel a little hopeful. Paul was a lonely man who chose not to get married because he believed he always related more to the aesthetics of being single. His mother died when he was young, and he preferred not to discuss his father. From the age of 15, he had been all by himself, but at times he craved company.
How did the trip to Boston impact Angus, Paul, and Mary?
At the Christmas party, Mary suffers from an emotional breakdown as the music and the festivity made her miss her son all the more. Paul and Angus accompanied Mary back to Barton, but Angus intended to return to the party. Paul refused to permit him to do so, and during the heated exchange of words, Paul made Angus feel unwanted. Mary pointed out how badly it could have affected Angus, considering his parents made him feel the same way. Paul realized that he needed to be a better person because Angus deserved some joy at Christmas. Even though he always stayed away from celebrations, with his odd new family, he felt the urgency to do something to cheer up Mary and Angus. He bought a Christmas tree and left gifts for them. Even though the books were not really what Mary and Angus had in mind, it was Paul’s gesture that won their hearts. Mary prepared a hearty dinner, and Angus commented that he had never had such a family dinner before. He was not with his family, yet the experience made him feel a lot closer to the idea of a family than he ever did before. When Paul asked Angus to make any demands, he instantly replied that he wanted to go to Boston. Hunham initially was not onboard, but Mary convinced him that he could pass it as a field trip. Paul finally agreed to it, and the three headed to Boston.
They dropped Mary off at her sister’s place in Roxbury. Her sister was pregnant, and Mary initially did not know if she had the strength in her to be there for her. But ultimately, she gathered courage and decided to hand over all her son’s baby clothes and shoes to her sister. Meanwhile, Paul and Angus headed over to the Museum of Fine Arts, and for the first time, Angus enjoyed learning about historical facts from him. We can assume that Paul chose to create an unapproachable image amongst his students because he wanted them to fear him so that they would maintain a distance. He was afraid of his students finding out too much about him. With Angus, Paul realized that maybe he could be a better version of himself.
Watching Angus enjoy himself at the skating rink, Paul experienced an unexplainable sense of happiness. Both he and Angus took the same medication for depression, and he found out about it during their stay in Boston. At that moment, he was a father figure to Angus, and knowing how difficult life had been for the teenager, he was glad to see him smile. That night, Paul met his Harvard classmate, Hugh Cavanaugh, and he was not too happy about it. There seemed to be a history that the two shared, and Angus could feel the tension. He watched Paul lie about teaching abroad, and he realized that the professor was embarrassed by the life he was living. To help his case, Angus lied about being Paul’s nephew and added that Paul was writing a monograph on ancient cameras. Later, in The Holdovers, we find out that when Paul was a Harvard student, he was accused of plagiarizing his roommate’s senior thesis, but in reality, it was his roommate who stole from him. But because his roommate had connections in the faculty, it was Paul who had to bear the brunt. Paul was kicked out of Harvard, and it was the first time someone other than the principal, Dr. Greene, got to know about it. But it was not for cheating that Paul was expelled, but because he “accidentally” hit his roommate with a car. Paul had no regret, and his smile showed how proud he was of the one time he stood up for himself. He was pleased with how his life turned out, but he was also aware that people such as Hugh would never understand the joy he experienced from teaching at Barton, so he chose to lie.
Why did Paul make a sacrifice for Angus?
On the last day of their stay in Boston, Angus tried to run away to meet his father. He had lied about his father’s death because, even though he was alive, Angus had lost him a long time ago. Paul accompanied Angus after the young boy repeatedly requested that he give him one chance to see his father. Angus’ father did not recognize him when they met at the facility, and after everything Angus shared, he expressed his suspicion about the nurses. His heart broke a little seeing his father in that condition. The reality of him being completely alone felt all the more palpable, and that feeling of loneliness had started to set in. In the end, Angus shares with Paul how disappointed he was in himself. He believed he was not the perfect son and that he gave his mother reasons to keep him away. He was afraid of getting expelled from Barton for making another mistake like he did in the previous schools. Angus’ biggest fear was that he would be sent to the Fork Union and then to the war, and he would eventually be forgotten—just like his father. Paul spoke for the first time about his father, an abusive man who did not leave him with any good memories. Paul acknowledged Angus’ fear, but at the same time, he believed that he would not become his father. He had faith in the young boy, and he was convinced that Angus would make a fine man once he grew up. Maybe these were the words Angus had been searching for, and that was why he visited his father. And even though it did not go as planned, he got to hear words of encouragement from the most unexpected source, and he was finally a little cheerful.
The odd family went on to celebrate the New Year in Barton, and as unexpected as it was, Angus ended up spending a memorable vacation. Students returned to Barton, and classes were conducted as usual. The Holdovers ends with Angus’ mother and stepfather visiting the boarding school. After a ruckus at the sanitarium, they found out that Angus had been there and had gifted his father a snow globe. His father used it to defend himself, and it resulted in complete chaos. Angus’ mother blamed her son for the disturbance her ex-husband had caused. She believed the school was responsible for the damage since they allowed Angus to leave the campus. She had to now search for another institute for her ex-husband, and she believed the entire situation could have been avoided. Paul was asked to join in to discuss the matter. He was aware that if Angus was found guilty, his parents would place him at Forks Union, and that was something the teenager was terrified of. Paul took the blame on himself; he stated that when he saw how upset Angus was during Christmas, he decided it would be best for him to visit his father. Paul spoke on behalf of Angus and requested that his mother not pull him out of the school.
Defending Angus cost Paul his job, but he no longer cared. As much as he enjoyed teaching at Barton, maybe the joy of truly connecting with another human being was worth the damage. He missed out on great opportunities in life because no one stood up for him at Harvard, and he did not wish for Angus to go through the same. During The Holdovers‘ ending, we find out that Mary was saving up to fund the college education of her sister’s baby. She hoped the new family member would fulfill Curtis’s dream of attending college. We also get to see a little of Paul’s rebellious side as he pulls out the bottle of liquor that was gifted to the principal from his bag.
In life, we come across individuals who feel like home, and it is through them that we learn the most valuable lessons. Sometimes family cannot fill the void that strangers can in the most unexpected ways. And if luck permits, they end up becoming our chosen family. Bidding goodbye to his favorite professor was not an easy task for Angus, and even though they did not say much, their eyes reflected the emotions they experienced. That Christmas, they needed each other, and they learned so much more about life than they could have otherwise. Both Paul and Angus were extremely lonely, and even though their situations were different, they could relate to each other. Paul had spent almost his entire life living on campus, and it was finally time for him to step out and visit all the places he had always wanted to. Maybe even work on the monograph he had been planning for a long, long time.