Oscars 2024: The Holdovers and Lessons in History

Writer David Hemingson has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay for his Dickensian tragicomedy about a curmudgeonly teacher during a Christmas vacation.
Oscars 2024: The Holdovers and Lessons in History
Oscars 2024: The Holdovers and Lessons in History

When writer David Hemingson first got the call from director Alexander Payne, to write The Holdovers (2023), he thought he was being pranked. He thought the voice on the other end of the phone was that of a friend who is known for playing practical jokes. It’s a fitting starting point for a film that is filled with gentle cons, pulled by people who are desperate to keep hidden old wounds that refuse to heal.   

History teacher, borderline alcoholic and school grump Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) finds himself saddled with Angus (Dominic Sessa), the only student in a  boarding school who has no home to go to during the Christmas vacation. Keeping them company is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who heads up the school canteen and is a mother grieving the loss of her son, who was killed in Vietnam. While Hunham is a persnickety pedant and killjoy with his students, it’s through his exchanges with Mary that Payne lets us see a more tender and sensitive side to the older man. Meanwhile Mary nudges Angus and Hunham closer together. While The Holdovers does occasionally get mired in sentimentality, for most part Hemingson’s script tackles the melancholia of his characters with a light touch. 

One of the film’s standout scenes takes place in a liquor store, after Hunham and Angus have had an awkward encounter with one of Hunham’s old college classmates. Angus knows Hunham as annoying, but upright and unimpeachable — Hunham constantly tosses around the phrase “a Barton man”, referring to the school’s unwavering ethics. Yet when faced with his past, Hunham lies through his teeth, spinning for himself a life in Europe, doing research funded by private institutes, and writing monographs about ancient cameras. about his life. Angus smoothly backs his teacher up, presenting himself as Hunham’s nephew. 

Afterwards, when they walk into a liquor store, Angus wants answers. Hemingson’s screenplay skillfully unpeels Hunham’s past through the bantering interrogation to which Angus subjects Hunham. Each answer reveals another layer to Hunham’s already eccentric character, with Giamatti landing punchline after punchline. “There was an incident when I was at Harvard. With my roommate,” says Hunham before conceding that he was accused of plagiarism. We’re presented with a conundrum — could “Barton man” Hunham have cheated? The answer is no, but it’s also a distraction from the real meat of Hunham’s story. Hunham was falsely accused by a “blue-blooded prick” and he was kicked out of Harvard. Now comes the curveball: Hunham wasn’t kicked out for cheating, but for hitting the aforementioned prick. With a car

The way Hemingson crafts this scene is a delight, showing a keen understanding of human behaviour, a masterful command over dramatic buildup and a wicked instinct for mischief. Hemingson sets the audience up to believe certain things and jump to certain conclusions, only to send us in a completely different direction. The grand reveal  at the end of the scene isn’t really about what Hunham did, as much as it is a revelation of the kind of person Hunham is. It also establishes the bond of a shared secret between Angus and Hunham, one that Hunham remains loyal to despite the heartbreaking consequences. As the two of them walk out of the liquor store, Tully’s relationship with Hunham has completely changed, as has ours.

You can read our review of The Holdovers here.

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