Many lessons to be learned from excellent ‘Holdovers’

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I was looking for something to watch the other night, so I practically screamed “Free Movies!” into my remote, and up popped a suggestion I’d been meaning to rent for weeks: “The Holdovers.”

In general terms, it’s about a teacher at a boarding school for boys who draws the short straw and is stuck babysitting for students who can’t go home for the Christmas holidays.

He starts with about five, but within a couple of hours most of the boys are claimed by their parents, all except one. And here is where the incredibly moving adventure begins.

Set in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, the film alternates between comedy, drama and tragedy.

The young man who is the “last student standing” was essentially abandoned by his mother who just acquired a new husband and preferred a honeymoon to spending time with her son.

The teacher, played by the magnificent Paul Giamatti, reminds me of a cross between Mr. Chips and Ebeneezer Scrooge. He evolves from a misanthrope with a chip on his soldier and a bad case of body odor to a man who sacrifices his own career for the welfare of a lonely, struggling boy.

Over three decades ago, I spent a couple of years teaching at an all-boys school on the Main Line in suburban Philadelphia. My brother was an alumnus of Haverford, as well as many friends. I was Mademoiselle Fleurs, the French teacher, and while I doubt I was the best “professeur” they’d ever seen, I was a novelty for the boys.

There were exactly three women on the high school faculty, so that made me a bit of a unicorn. The blonde math teacher was the pretty one — besides being exceptionally smart — and the older female Spanish teacher was intimidating — besides being exceptionally smart — so I kind of fell into the “she grades on a curve and she’s nice” category.

My point in writing this is that I loved every minute of teaching those boys, who were a wonderful mixture of child and man. They were teenagers, most of them at the age of the boy in “The Holdovers,” and dealing with all of the struggles and joys that young males experience at that time in their lives.

I often say that I much preferred teaching boys to girls, because while boys were open books, girls were KGB agents: you had no idea what they were thinking, or about to do behind your back.

Watching the film reminded me that society has never been very good at raising boys. We often talk about how “it’s a man’s world” and girls are at a disadvantage.

We have Title IX in sports programs, and all of these initiatives to encourage girls to go into the STEM fields.

We get annoyed at the natural ebullience and energy of testosterone-fueled mini-males, calling it “disturbing” and try to neutralize it with mind altering drugs, but we rejoice when girls “find their voices.” Boys are encouraged to be silent, so girls can shout.

The most beautiful and moving part about “The Holdovers” is the relationship that develops between the young man and his initially reluctant teacher. It is subtle at first, laced with sarcasm and mutual distrust, transitions into a sort of grudging respect, and ends up breaking your heart.

The palpable love that has developed between the two of them, at a time when men weren’t supposed to have “feelings,” makes you realize that the only thing that matters, in the end, is being fully seen and accepted by someone who understands what you’re going through.

I don’t mean that in a Hallmark card, everyone gets a trophy kind of way. Our flaws and our mistakes are not things to celebrate, and our worst characteristics should be a source of shame.

What I mean is that human connection is extremely important, and our society is hardwired to believe that boys don’t need it as much as girls.

“The Holdovers” is a wonderful reminder of something I’ve known all my life: boys are not girls with more testosterone in them.

They are completely different creatures, and they need male role models because in a world that wants to criminalize masculinity, calling it “toxic” and waging witch hunts with hashtags, boys are an endangered species.

We even see the whole social media trend of “girl dads,” which is kind of stupid because pride in being a dad shouldn’t come with a gender tag.

I’d urge anyone with sons to watch this magnificent film.

Keep the tissues nearby. And go hug your boys — if they let you.

Copyright 2024 Christine Flowers, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times, and can be reached at [email protected].

Christine Flowers is a Philadelphian who loves the Eagles but can leave the cheesesteaks. She writes about anything that will likely annoy the majority of people, and in her spare time practices immigration law (which is bound to annoy at least some people.)