The Holdovers film poster

See how the Oscar® nominee and Golden Globe winner, The Holdovers, hits the Save the Cat! story beats.

Written by: David Hemingson

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Genre: Institutionalized (a group, family, or organization that is unique, an ongoing conflict, and a choice/sacrifice: join the organization, burn it down, or commit “suicide”)

Opening Image: A boys’ choir sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” over shots of snow falling on the “haves” and the “have-nots”: a working-class New England town in decline and, in contrast, the impressive buildings of Barton Academy, an elite boarding school.

Set-Up: At Barton, we meet our Institutionalized group in their thesis world: Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the Classics teacher, a middle-aged bachelor who lives at the school full-time and grades papers with disgust, declaring his students, “Philistines”; Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa in his first film role), a sharp-tongued and unpopular student who brags about his upcoming trip to St. Kitts and mocks the “holdovers” who will be orphaned at the school for Christmas break; and Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cafeteria manager who goes from ordering her staff around to gazing out at the snow with an expression of true heartbreak, as she’s recently lost her only son, Curtis, in Vietnam.

Stasis = Death is the defining quality here, as the icy campus of Barton seems to have frozen our characters in lives that have too many things that need fixing to enumerate.

Hunham gets the thankless job of staying with the holdovers for the Christmas break, a punishment meted out by headmaster Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman), who’s still miffed that Hunham gave the son of a rich senator a failing grade and ruined his chances for Princeton.

Casting a haughty eye at the expensive bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII on Woodrup’s desk, Hunham refuses to apologize or give an inch to any of his wealthy students (labeled “rich and dumb” by Mary). Woodrup begs him to “at least pretend to be a human being,” but Hunham fancies himself the one truly honest educator at Barton and seems to relish returning his students’ final exams adorned with D’s and F’s.

Having received the only decent grade, a rare B+, Angus tries to appeal to Hunham’s (questionable) humanity by asking him to dispense with homework over the break. Hunham bristles and bears down even harder on his class; a battle of wills has been initiated, one that Hunham and Angus will fight for a good portion of this film.

Professor Hunham at his lectern
Professor Hunham in his comfort zone

Theme Stated: “Non nobis solum nati sumus.” (“Not for ourselves alone are we born.”) Hunham quotes Cicero pompously, but the aloneness of our three main characters is achingly deep and their journey to vulnerability and relationship will be painfully slow.

Catalyst: Angus finds out that there will be no St. Kitts for him; his mother has gone off on a honeymoon with her new husband, relegating Angus to “holdover” status, under the care of the dreaded Hunham.

Debate: As Angus writhes in genuine misery, Hunham persists in his thesis world mode, insisting that the students continue studying and exercising during the break. “Walleye,” as the students call Hunham due to his wandering eye, presides over a divisive cast of characters, including Jason Smith, who should be at Haystack skiing with his uber-rich parents, but whose father is leaving him at Barton until he agrees to cut his long hair; Ye-Joon, a young Korean student who is horribly homesick and wets the bed; Alex Ollerman, a sweet Mormon; and of course, the surly Kountze, who unwittingly provides Hunham with a Save the Cat! moment.

When Hunham invites Mary to join him and the boys at the table for dinner, Kountze objects, insulting Mary. For the first time, we see Hunham’s heart—he rages at Kountze, saying that his wealth and privilege blinds him to the pain of others, and we start to suspect that there’s some deep wound beneath Hunham’s detached superiority.

He tells Mary that someday he’d like to write a monograph about Carthage but doesn’t feel that he has enough in him for an entire book, and she observes, “You can’t even have a whole dream, can you?”

Break into Two: Like a Christmas miracle, Jason Smith’s father descends in a helicopter and rescues most of the holdovers to go skiing, but because Angus’s mother cannot be reached by phone, he is unable to escape. He and Hunham are trapped together, for better or for worse. And, of course, it gets much worse before it gets better.

Angus and Hunham stand in the smow
Angus and Hunham… trapped together outside (and inside) Barton Academy

B Story: Hunham and Angus provide the “love story” of this film; their journey from bitter enemies to something approaching a father-son relationship is extremely funny, truly painful, and breathtakingly tender.

Fun & Games: In their antithesis world, Angus and Hunham are forced into proximity, with only Mary, and an occasional appearance by the custodian Danny (Naheem Garcia), to buffer them. After yet another argument, Angus leads Hunham on a merry chase through the building, into the forbidden gym, where Hunham warns Angus that this is his “rubicon” and Angus cheekily retorts “Alea jacta est.” (“The die is cast.”) He then catapults off a springboard into a defiant flip, lands badly and dislocates his shoulder, screaming in pain.

At the hospital, Angus takes pity on Hunham and concocts a whopper of a story about his accident to prevent Hunham from getting in trouble; in response, Hunham huffily states that “Barton boys don’t lie,” a line that sets up delicious anticipation of the many lies that are sure to follow—and how Hunham and Angus will use those tall tales to draw closer to one another.

Hunham, Angus and Mary entering the party, with Mary holding a covered tray of food
Angus, Mary, and Hunham arrive at the Christmas party.

Midpoint: Hunham, Angus, and Mary attend a Christmas Eve party thrown by Lydia (Carrie Preston), a fellow teacher for whom Hunham nurses a little crush. At first the bash seems like a welcome escape from Barton and in a false victory, there’s some romantic promise in the air. Danny gives Mary a lovely gift; Hunham and Lydia share some sweet moments; and Angus gets to look down the shirt of the lovely Elise, Lydia’s niece.

Bad Guys Close In: Unfortunately, leaving the grounds of Barton doesn’t cure their internal institutionalization and everything goes south pretty quickly: Hunham is crushed when he discovers that Lydia has a significant other; Mary gets drunk and has an emotional breakdown about her son; and when Hunham angrily says he wishes Angus’s father would whisk him away in a helicopter, Angus says that his father is dead.

After Mary chastises Hunham for his words, he decides to make the slightest of efforts to provide Angus with an actual Christmas, getting him a cheap tree and a rather lame gift, but Angus wants something better: a “field trip” to Boston.

Against his better judgment, Hunham finds himself on the road with Angus and Mary, and, against all odds, he begins to enjoy himself—until a chance encounter reveals Hunham’s internal bad guys.

Angus and Hunham at an ice skating rink in Boston
Angus and Hunham on the “field trip” to Boston where a secret is revealed

After running into an old college classmate, the truth comes out: when Hunham was a student at Harvard, his rich “legacy” roommate plagiarized his senior thesis and Hunham took the blame. He was kicked out of Harvard and slunk back to Barton, where he has remained for over 30 years, nursing a broken and bitter heart.

And Angus has a confession of his own: his father is not dead, but is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, a source of tremendous anguish and shame for Angus.

All Is Lost: Hunham takes Angus to visit his father, Tom Tully (Stephen Thorne). Angus pours out his soul to his beloved dad, but Tom, paranoid and overly medicated, barely seems to recognize him. The hope that Angus had for their relationship expires in a whiff of death.

Dark Night of the Soul: Angus, devastated, confesses his deepest fear to Hunham: that he will turn out like his father and get sent away somewhere and no one will notice or care that he’s gone. Hunham digs down deep and comforts Angus, “You are your own man. Your history does not have to dictate your destiny.” But will Hunham be able to live these words out himself?

Break into 3: Mary, feeling more hopeful after visiting her pregnant sister, rejoins Angus and Hunham, and the three laugh together as they try to pull off a DIY Cherries Jubilee dessert in a restaurant parking lot.

Finale: Back at Barton, Hunham, Mary, and Angus step gingerly into their synthesis world as friends, but we fear the institution will seep back in and choke out this nascent alliance. As if on cue, Angus’s mother and stepfather show up and throw a wrecking ball into the works. They are furious that Angus visited Tom in Boston and want to know how he tricked Hunham into taking him.

Mary extends her hand to Angus as they share a bench
Mary extends her hand to Angus as they sit outside the headmaster’s office, awaiting Angus’s fate.

When they say they plan to take Angus out of Barton and put him in military school, Hunham gathers the team (his own courage and decency) and comes up with a lie that would make a “Barton boy” blush. He insists that it was his idea for Angus to visit his father, and adds that he convinced Angus to do so, and he doesn’t give a shit if they’re angry about it, because they left Angus all alone at Christmas, and what’s more, Angus has enormous potential and taking him out of Barton would be devastating and unfair.

Of course, Hunham’s passionate rant gets him fired, providing the “suicide” of this Institutionalized tale, but Angus is saved.

As Hunham packs up 30-plus years of his life and prepares for terrifying, exhilarating freedom, Mary gives him an empty journal to finally start his monograph, and he and Angus share a tender moment of true connection. Non nobis solum nati sumus.

Final Image: Hunham drives to the edge of Barton’s campus and as a last gesture to the institution that nurtured and imprisoned him, he takes a swig from Hardy’s pilfered bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII, gargles, and spits it out on the hallowed ground.