Once upon a time, Paul Hunham,1 the lead character of Alexander Payne’s recent film The Holdovers,2 thought he could make a difference. That’s why he went into teaching in the first place. He felt a calling to prepare students for the world, to give them a grounding and standards. Teaching the venerable study of Ancient Civilizations at Barton, a prestigious boarding school in New England, Hunham hoped to impart to those in his charge the tradition and values he inherited while he himself was a student there as a young man.
When we meet Hunham thirty years later, it’s hard to imagine he was ever an idealistic young educator. Yes, with erudition he still regularly repeats well-worn maxims, often in Latin, but with an edge that reveals they no longer have much purchase for him. “Non nobis solum nati sumus” is his rote response to being tasked with “holding over” for Christmas break to take care of students stuck at school during the holidays. Even as he says it, we realize that the wisdom of Cicero, “Not for ourselves alone are we born,” has become for Hunham nothing more than a pedestal from which he can look down on his fellow faculty and students alike. Altruism is far from his love language, wheelhouse, or bailiwick.
As the story continues, we learn that Hunham has long ago traded his teacher’s mantle for that of judge. He deems his students “[l]azy, vulgar, rancid little Philistines” and his colleagues compromising opportunists. His curmudgeonly ways are hilarious to watch, but also a temptation to resist. The path that led him to this posture is a cautionary tale for all who take up the teacher’s task. Namely, The Holdovers provides an opportunity to search out any hint of bitterness that may have taken hold in our own hearts. But the brilliance of Payne’s film, what makes it so compelling and valuable for educators in particular, is its depiction of what leads Hunham back. The character’s redemptive arc ends up more comedic than tragic.
The Holdovers’ boarding school setting will inevitably evoke scenes from Kevin Kline’s Emperor’s Club and, even more, Robin Williams’ classic Dead Poet’s Society.3 However, Hunham is more like the anti-John Keating. The only joy he derives from his work is disparaging students with acerbic wit and blocking their path to the Ivy League. Maybe he truly is an excellent teacher down deep, as his headmaster asserts, but you can’t prove it by his students who mostly despise him and suffer through his classes because they are required.
Mr. Hunham’s cynicism has hardened him and, by all appearances, has wrung out all trace of hope that his students will be better or wiser for having endured his paces. He’s witnessed simply too many inequities where wealth is confused with moral character. He’s been asked to make too many compromises to accommodate children of donors and push them through no matter their academic performance. And he’s watched too many students squander their privilege and shirk their premier education while others, less fortunate, are left with nothing.
We know none of this at first. These revelations come later as layer after layer is peeled back when Hunham is forced out of his comfort zone to care for Angus Tully,4 a particularly troubled student confined to campus over Christmas. Tully is actually a holdover among holdovers, the only student left behind when his classmates catch a lucky break and escape the school for a ski resort. Unwanted and full of thwarted dreams, Tully is, far more than either can initially see, much like Hunham. Both are sharp, worldly wise, wounded, and guarded.
But it takes time for Hunham to recognize a kindred spirit. Initially he sees only the caricature that looms large in his imagination, a stereotype—it’s worth noting—of his own creation. Years of patronizing condescension and maintaining a safe distance untouched by reality have sharpened the lines. Hunham’s intolerance won’t be easily dislodged. To Hunham, Tully is merely a spoiled brat whining over missing out on St. Kitts. Blind is Hunham to the deep wounds of abandonment and anxiety that Tully daily navigates. Until he jettisons his preconceptions and opens his heart to see who his student really is, Hunham only adds to Tully’s burdens.
Thrust into a situation he didn’t ask for and can’t altogether control, Hunham must confront the truth, challenging the false narratives he’s held to with such tenacity. He has kept himself cloistered from the world, allegedly so he can focus on spiritual concerns. But the gentle teasing of Mary, Barton’s cafeteria manager, reveals that fear and self-pity are to blame. This insularity and inward turn ensures Hunham’s wounds are never healed. Instead, Hunham has indulged fantasies of greatness. In his mind, if nowhere else, he is a hero scorned and a genius overlooked—the only one who sees the grave injustices of the world, even if he’s powerless to right them. What he fails to see is the role he plays in perpetuating the trouble he bemoans. He preens about integrity and is enraged by abuses of power, yet he also wields his own authority in the classroom without mercy or even the smallest regard for his students’ well-being.5
Hunham’s story is powerful for its relatability. Only the most inexperienced of teachers won’t recognize in themselves the potential for despair when faced with the overwhelming challenges of the profession. Hunham, of course, has fully given in to that despair and thus rationalized giving up: “[T]he world doesn’t make sense anymore,” he laments. “I mean, it’s on fire.” He complains about the callousness of the rich, the degradation of the poor, the hollowing out of principles. His winsome colleague, Miss Crane, provides the prescription: “Well… look, if that’s all true, then now is when they most need someone like you.” Her insight serves as a crucial reminder when we feel tempted by the discouragement that can and invariably will attend our work.
It’s hard to deny that Tully desperately needs someone like Hunham, and the need is beautifully mutual. The task of caring for Tully is initially appalling but is precisely what Hunham needs to shake him from his self-imposed malaise. To scrape the scales off his eyes and really see the people and the humanness of those he’s called to reach.
Hunham comes alive in his interactions with Tully—dealing with a medical emergency, protecting the boy from enraged townies, brightening up his Christmas, and taking him to Boston. The transformation in Hunham is as inspiring as his earlier persona was dreadful. At a museum of ancient art, we finally get a glimpse of the passion that led him to teach. After calling Tully’s attention to meaningful aspects of the past, he extolls its study in impassioned tones:
There’s nothing new in human experience, Mr. Tully. Each generation thinks it invented debauchery or suffering or rebellion, but man’s every impulse and appetite from the disgusting to the sublime is on display right here all around you. So, before you dismiss something as boring or irrelevant, remember, if you truly want to understand the present or yourself, you must begin in the past. You see, history is not simply the study of the past. It is an explanation of the present.
It’s an astonishing scene. With perspicacity and fervor, Hunham reveals that all along he’s had the remedy for what ails him. Watching Tully eagerly respond to these insights proves that even among the turmoil of the world there’s still much Hunham can teach if he’ll just return to his first love and hold tight. His misanthropy was born from practice, repeatedly treading the ground of epithet after negative epithet. It might be overcome by better and different habits, through cultivating hope and risking vulnerability, as the film’s beautiful conclusion demonstrates.
Teaching is not for the faint of heart. It takes more than competence and intellect. It requires emotional and moral intelligence, too, including kindness, gentleness, and courage.6 Hunham’s discomfort, the suffering imposed by his clashes with Tully,7 is what enables this transformation and ultimately empowers him to relinquish his pretensions and pride. Only then does he recover his true vocation and manifest the integrity he holds dear.
- Played, in a command performance, by Paul Giamatti.
- The Holdovers is now available for streaming on Peacock.
- See for example: Perry L. Glanzer, Todd Ream and Tony Talbert, “Why Both Classical and Modern Character Education Are Not Enough: Lessons from The Emperor’s Club,” Journal of Education and Christian Belief 7 (Autumn 2003): 103-12. Also, I have a friend to thank for seeing convincing connections between Angus Tully and Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye.
- Tully is played by Dominic Sessa, in his stunning film debut.
- An early scene—where Hunham whistles Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” while returning tests (with mostly failing grades)—is a telling one. Comical, yes, but the way Hunham launches the tests at the students, enjoying their dismay over their scores, suggests his teaching is meant more to assault than support them. In light of the historical setting of the film during Vietnam and the role the war plays in the plot, perhaps this vignette is meant to recall the iconic and chilling episode from Apocalypse Now.
- And really, all the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
- Hunham is a self-described atheist, but even still, the role of suffering in his moral sanctification parallels the significance of suffering in the Christian life. Hunham’s trajectory brings to mind a book my husband and I are currently reading, which explores this hard but crucial feature of our faith. I commend it to you for the wisdom and inspiration it offers. Stanley Key, Cross Purposes: Dying to Get a Life (Francis Asbury Society, 2023).