April 15, 2024

OPINION: Phantom nostalgia

Lost in Scene

Over the last week, I found myself perusing the available Oscar Best Picture nominees now that the majority of them are on streaming services. It’s exhausting to keep up with nowadays, figuring out where the 10 movies landed on seven different streaming services (only “The Zone of Interest” has not arrived on streaming).

To say that the movie I will be talking about, “The Holdovers,” was the one I was excited about, I would be lying. On the surface, “The Holdovers” follows traditional Hollywood storytelling almost to a fault, sometimes dulling its desired effect. It’s a movie where a grumpy teacher bonds with a rebellious teenager over the holidays, who eventually part with their worlds forever changed thanks to each other. Not exactly original.

Frankly it’s maddening, but I can’t help but feel nothing but joy from how the movie feels pointed toward me, from both aesthetic and narrative lines. It gives me nostalgia for a time I never lived, for movies I did not watch in my childhood and is brutal in making me think of my own dad.

The movie’s 1970 backdrop is stained by the background of the time, specifically the Vietnam War, finding ways to weasel into the lives of its characters. This is prominent in Mary Lamb, the cafeteria manager for the boarding school in “The Holdovers,” whose son had been drafted and killed in the war. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance as the character is a groundbreaking highlight, existing tragically as an underappreciated figure whose chances to grieve are diminished by the people around her.

At the core of the movie is an intense shame about aspects of the character’s lives, from grief, rejection, alienation, anxiety, physical appearance and academic deficiencies. Walls crumble as the characters grow closer together, peeling these layers of shame piece-by-piece. Academics aren’t the concern here, but rather the need to be a decent human being within the boundaries and circumstances of your upbringing, something less quantifiable than a higher test score.

A gorgeous visual aesthetic permeates throughout the movie, with bright, contrasting colors meant to evoke the stylings of films made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It feels like a movie that was plucked out of the world’s timeline and released a few decades late. Dialogue is comfortably biting, with a flair for purposefully alienating intellectual dialogue.

All of these elements mold in my mind to be unavoidably remnant of my dad, whose love of the feel-good movies from his time and childhood I absorbed and imprinted onto myself. “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Good Will Hunting” were favorites for him, and the stylings and similar themes found in those films I couldn’t help but acknowledge in “The Holdovers.”

My dad is a science/physics teacher, but he understands the importance of his guidance extends to beyond simple facts and test scores. It’s one of the reasons I’m sure he liked those movies, where he could see a story that was familiar to him, although in more grand ways on the screen.

I see elements of him in Paul Giamatti’s performance of Paul Hunman, a history teacher whose high standards can be detrimental to students’ opinions of him. Yet, this passion for teaching is real, and continues trying to foster good behavior despite his spoiled students’ mutinous attitude. The connection he builds for Angus Tully, played in a stunning debut performance from Dominic Sessa, feels real and built on a mutual respect for the private lives they uncover in each other.

The character is not my dad, but Hunman’s existence and everything else, especially the visual style reminiscent of my dad’s favorite movies, it’s undeniable how much I have to associate “The Holdovers” with my dad.

I’ve never lived in New England, where “The Holdovers” takes place. Quiet scenes where the cast gather around a TV are nostalgic in ways that I can’t formulate good logic for. I never went to boarding school, did not live before the year 2001 and wasn’t really a delinquent in need of correction. Yet, it’s still masterfully comforting in its familiarity, inviting in its cozy aesthetic to make the movie’s narrative beats that much more effective. “The Holdovers” is a warm fire that hooks the audience for a ride, soothing the heart despite the winter around it.

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.