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The One Scene That Should Win ‘The Holdovers’ All the Oscars

Take a minute to imagine the perfect Christmas dinner. A nice glass of wine paired with mashed potatoes, and, later, sugar cookies and peppermint ice cream. A smoked honey ham takes center stage. Maybe the fireplace blazes behind you. A fuzzy sweater hangs from your shoulders, perhaps stained with a drop of gravy from dinner. As the food coma starts to hit, you gaze into the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, nearly dozing off at the table with a full stomach…

This all sounds delightful. Now, imagine this wonderful, warm, cozy Christmas dinner taking place in your high school cafeteria, with all the food prepared by lunch ladies.

Still sound like a good time?

That’s exactly what happens in The Holdovers, and even though it might not sound Christmassy (nor appetizing, really) to the rest of us, this moment becomes a treasured memory for our three main characters. This last-minute celebration, in fact, might be the best Christmas to date for crotchety classics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), joined by school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

The 1970s-set Holdovers takes place in the school’s two-week holiday break spanning the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Angus is the lone leftover student spending winter vacation at his boarding school while his neglectful mom gall-vants around the world with his stepdad; Mr. Hunham is assigned to stay on campus as his guardian. The film follows the complicated connection they develop over the course of the two weeks. Mr. Hunham, who both attended and now works at Barton Academy, believes Angus to be a spoiled brat whose luxurious boarding school lifestyle is fully funded by his parents. But Angus is hiding a more tragic upbringing, something that finally comes out in the days surrounding Christmas.

Their shared holiday dinner really brings out the authentic Angus. Mary prepares the food—a huge ham and fluffy potatoes, alongside some whiskey for the adults—having also stayed at the school over break She’s still mourning the death of her son, a Barton alum who was killed serving in Vietnam. At the start of the film, Angus and his classmates lobbed harsh criticisms at Mary’s lackluster dinners. But as they get to know each other during the break, Angus comes to appreciate Mary and even compliments the meal. After all, Angus says, this is his first proper Christmas dinner.

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti.

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti.

Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

Hold on a second. You mean to tell me that the prep school boy with a perfect life—as Hunham believes—has never had Christmas dinner? As Angus sinks his teeth into the warm slices of ham, we begin to understand that Mary and Hunham, as odd as it sounds, have become the kid’s found family. Cooking an entire Christmas dinner for someone is an incredible way to show them how much they mean to you, almost as great as a Christmas gift wrapped and left under the tree.

This supper scene also adds new context to one of the film’s earlier moments. At a Christmas Eve party that Angus, Hunham, and Mary attend the night before, Angus and Hunham get into one of their regular scuffles. Hunham teases Angus about the fact that he’s been left by his parents to sit and rot at Barton over winter break, feeling like an unwanted child. Angus storms off. Mary finally fires back at Hunham for his behavior: “You don’t tell a boy that’s been left behind at Christmas that nobody wants him. What’s wrong with you?”

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully.

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully.

Focus Features

After Christmas, Angus and Hunham go on a last-minute trip to Boston; Mary joins them for the ride, asking to be dropped off in her sister’s place in neighboring Roxbury. There, the boys finally settle their differences and figure out how to empathize with the other. But this dinner scene feels like the inflection point of their relationship, as Hunham’s flawed perception of Angus collides with the reality of his student’s not-so-pleasant life. Hunham thought a winter break spent at Barton would make for Angus’ worst holiday season; in fact, it’s the kid’s best.

The Holdovers’ Christmas may sound a little downtrodden. Instead, the movie balances tender melancholy with a witty sense of humor. This isn’t Home Alone or The Holiday, which treat holiday isolation like an exciting new adventure; The Holdovers is a bit darker. But this aching scene has humorous beats and a warm setting, as well as a full table of food over which to salivate. The Holdovers knows you don’t want to eat despair pie for dessert. So, instead, it bakes a delectable ham and seasons it with grief.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph stars as Mary Lamb.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph stars as Mary Lamb.

Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

The Holdovers is never preachy in its story about empathy and family relationships. Instead, it slips little, meaningful moments into casual, lighthearted conversation around the dinner table. “Pass the brussels sprouts” is followed by “This is my first Christmas dinner,” a way to hide our characters’ pasts the same way parents hide vegetables in their children’s meals. Whether you await this year’s Christmas dinner, or it’s your first time without one, The Holdovers is here for emotional support.

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