Themes are a big part of every story, be it in the form of a novel, short story, film, poem, or even song. Films can really be seen as centered around one or more themes, and in well-made films, each and every element of the film – characterization, dialog, production design, score, etc.) – somehow supports the theme (or themes). Therefore, for this module, you could conceivably watch any film and discuss different aspects of its thematic elements, but I have chosen one film in particular for its unique handling of theme. For this module, you be watching The Holdovers (2023), directed by Alexander Payne, for an exploration of thematic elements in film. 

The Reading

First, you’re going to read chapter 02 in The Art of Watching Films– "Thematic Elements." Then, on to the film!

The Watching

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The Holdovers (2023) by Alexander Payne

In this module, we shift our focus to The Holdovers, a comedy-drama set against the backdrop of a New England boarding school during the holiday season. Directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa, the film follows the life of a curmudgeonly history teacher forced to chaperone students with nowhere to go over Christmas break in 1970.

In "The Holdovers," the setting unfolds within the unfamiliar context of a New England boarding school during the holiday season. This scenario stands in stark contrast to the typical experience of Lehman students, who primarily attend a commuter school, where students and faculty typically disperse during breaks. The film immerses us in a unique environment where three main characters, Paul Hunham, Mary Lamb, and Angus Tully, navigate a shared space over the holidays, creating a narrative rich in thematic exploration.

Boarding School Isolation

Lehman students, accustomed to commuting, might find the isolated, communal experience of a boarding school during the holiday break intriguingly foreign. The setting becomes a character in itself, fostering a sense of seclusion and a unique dynamic among those who remain on campus. Pay close attention to it!

Shared Solitude

Unlike the usual hustle and bustle of Lehman's commuter environment, "The Holdovers" presents a shared solitude as the characters face a quiet campus, emphasizing the impact of their shared experiences during the holiday season.

Themes and Thematic Elements

Paul Hunham - Isolation and Redemption
Isolation: Paul Hunham, the curmudgeonly history teacher, embodies the theme of isolation. His strict demeanor and personal struggles create a barrier between him and those around him, reflecting the solitude that can come with the holiday season.

Redemption: Paul's journey becomes a focal point, portraying the theme of redemption. As he navigates the responsibilities of caring for the "holdovers," he finds an opportunity for personal redemption and connection, challenging the isolation he initially embodies.

Mary Lamb - Grief and Healing
Grief: Mary Lamb, the head cook, carries the weight of grief over the loss of her son, introducing the theme of grief. The holiday season amplifies her pain, providing a poignant backdrop for exploring the complexities of mourning.

Healing: Mary's character arc delves into the theme of healing. Through the connections she forms during the holiday break, she undergoes a transformative journey, demonstrating the possibility of finding solace and renewal even in the midst of grief.

Angus Tully - Identity and Empathy
Identity: Angus Tully, a student left on campus, grapples with the theme of identity. His search for self-understanding and connection during the holiday break highlights the challenges faced by individuals who don't conform to societal norms.

Empathy: Angus's interactions with Paul and Mary contribute to the theme of empathy. Through shared experiences, the characters learn to understand and support each other, fostering a sense of empathy that transcends their individual struggles.

Lehman Student Reflections

As a Lehman student, you are familiar with the transient nature of breaks – we're in one right now! So you should explore the film's unique setting as an opportunity to reflect on the themes of isolation, redemption, grief, healing, identity, and empathy. As you observe the characters navigate unfamiliar territory, you may find resonance with the shared human experiences embedded in these universal themes. And therein lies the point of themes: their universaility is why they are so valuable in storytelling! The Holdovers invites Lehman students to step outside the boundaries of your commuter school routine, embracing the unfamiliar to gain insights into universal complexities of the human condition during the holiday season.

As always, the media for this module can be found in the LEH 353 - Visual Storytelling library on Plex.

The Questions

Once you’ve completed the reading and watched Wings of Desire, answer the following questions. You can also access this questionnaire in a new window by clicking here. Note: the questionnaire below contains multiple sections.