'Holdovers' from another era ...
Happy Thanksgiving and other thoughts ...
Editor’s note: Happy Thanksgiving to subscribers of this newsletter, and to other readers who might have stumbled upon this post through search engines or social media. No matter what our circumstances, we share a common bond because it’s a safe bet that we can all find something to be grateful for. -TC
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Every now and then, you see a film that strikes a chord with the psyche. The first I can remember was 1980’s “Ordinary People.” Starring Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, and directed by Robert Redford, the movie depicted a family in crisis, with the specter of death and mental illness looming large. Only about seven years earlier, my parents had gone through an ugly divorce, prompting my mother’s extended visit to a mental health facility not unlike that endured by the young Timothy Hutton’s character in Ordinary People.
Fast forward to 2023 and “The Holdovers,” set in an eastern Massachusetts boarding school in the early 1970s. Not only did I attend such a school during that period, but the campus of my alma mater was the setting for much of the movie.
Before I even get into the personal connection I felt with the movie, it’s worth pointing out this one will go down as one of the best of the year, and the critical consensus so far bears that out. The reviews are almost uniformly laudatory.
In case you missed it, the movie tells the story of students at an all-boys Massachusetts boarding school whose families don’t want them home for Christmas break, or whose families made up excuses because they don’t want to be bothered with entertaining their own sons over the holidays. Yah, I know it’s sad. And so, for the most part, are the stories of the characters themselves.
There are at least three Oscar-worthy performances: Paul Giamatti as Mr. Hunham, the sad-sack faculty member charged with taking care of the little darlings whose parents didn’t want them over the break; Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully, a troubled senior who ultimately is the only kiddo remaining for break after the others manage at the last minute to join another student’s family on a ski vacation; and Da'Vine Joy Randolph, the food services manager whose only son graduated from Barton but was later killed in action in Vietnam.
The aspect of the film I enjoyed the most was the development of the characters and the extent to which, with little in common aside from the school itself, they came to understand each other through their personal stories and shared a common bond through the adversity they faced in life. It was rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but there were many chuckles and smiles in the Millerton Moviehouse during the film’s 133 minutes.
Much of the indoor location shooting occurred at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., where I spent five years (the school still had an 8th grade when I enrolled) as the son of a math teacher at the school. In independent school parlance, that made me a “faculty brat.” Several other scenes — and all of the exteriors, it seems — were shot at Groton, Deerfield, Northfield-Mount Hermon and a public school, Fairhaven High School.
All the dining hall scenes were set at St. Mark’s. That wood-paneled, high-ceilinged dining room, with its rows of greasy ligneous tables and portraits of headmasters past, has changed very little since my days there. Even the dead moose head above the headmaster’s table survives to this day. Just seeing the three characters having Christmas dinner in those dreary Gothic confines utterly creeped me out.
Other St. Mark’s scenes took place in the headmaster’s office (as a kid who was seemingly in trouble half the time, I spent more than my share of time there), the old field house where Angus dislocated his shoulder, various hallways in the main building and the tunnels carrying the steam pipes running under the building where much mischief occurred.
There were other settings at St. Mark’s that could have been used, had they still existed. To wit, the “schoolroom,” a large and cavernous space used for study halls and morning meetings, with desks as far as the eye can see. There was also a place called Dorm C, which essentially looked like a gymnasium space with mere alcoves functioning as living spaces for third-formers (freshman in regular high school parlance).
Yes, it was an elite school, but it didn’t always look like one. In those days, the idea was that you would take kids from privileged backgrounds, put them in spartan surroundings and it would build character. Nowadays, of course, such is not the case, mostly because competition from other schools forbids it. Dorm C was an early casualty of those market pressures shortly after I left the school in 1976. St. Mark’s facilities now exceed those of many small colleges and universities, both in terms of size, design and quality. Thankfully for the producers of The Holdovers, there are still plenty of remnants of the old days.
But what struck me most were the assigned roles and life stories of the principal characters themselves. They just seemed so real to me: the lonely, washed-up tippler teaching Western Civ during the day and living in a dormitory apartment surrounded by adolescents by night; the troubled teen whose wealthy parents stuck him in boarding school because they didn’t give a rat’s ass about him; the Black working-class school staff member who tried to give her son a better life by sending him to Barton as a day student, only to have him die tragically in a senseless war.
But even if you have no background in these types of schools or the personalities of those associated with them, you should enjoy The Holdovers, if for no other reason than the universality of the characters and natural dialogue driving the narrative. I was especially impressed with Dominic Sessa, who himself was a student at Deerfield when he was cast as as Angus Tully. Click here for the backstory courtesy Town & Country Magazine.
Once again, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.