As we welcome the new year, the latest holiday movies are never far behind us. If you’re in the independent school community, “The Holdovers,” the Alexander Payne film set at a New England boys boarding school, is sure to be on your radar. Set in the 1970s, it stars Paul Giamatti as a curmudgeonly classics teacher, newcomer Dominic Sessa as a disgruntled and lonely student, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the kitchen manager and a grieving mother. For those who haven’t seen it, the film revolves around the few who must remain on campus over winter break while most leave to spend time with their families for the holidays.
As the leader of the only national nonprofit independent school business association, I’m not accustomed to writing movie reviews or offering any kind of cultural criticism. It’s not NBOA’s bailiwick, and I’m not going to try. But as that same leader, I had to watch this film that was getting plenty of good buzz and may well be up for some Oscars in a couple weeks.
To me, the historic halls of the fictional Barton Academy, the school at the center of the film, felt very real, although I admittedly cringed at some of the boarding school cliches that were on full display. “The Holdovers” was shot at four real Massachusetts boarding schools: Deerfield Academy, St. Mark's School, Groton School and Northfield Mount Hermon. The filmmakers' meticulous attention to capturing the distinct architecture, snowy landscapes and daily routines of faculty and staff lends the movie authenticity. You may have read that Sessa, who plays the leading student character, was in fact discovered through Deerfield Academy's theater program during location scouting – a testament to the film's commitment to genuine portrayals.
“The Holdovers” captures the essence of boarding school life not just because of the wood-carved libraries and stoney exteriors but also because of the relationships at the center of the story. Being set at the end of 1970 through the new year of 1971, the movie certainly provides a vivid portrayal of the most traditional aspects of boarding school life, some of which we have thankfully outgrown. Yet I can’t help but see glimpses of contemporary archetypes such as the faculty member who has dedicated their entire life to the school and teaching, the often-overlooked support staff who consistently tries to provide their very best with limited financial budgets, and the head of school juggling the delicate balance between institutional mission and financial pragmatism. These echoes of modern school challenges seamlessly blend with the historical narrative, suggesting that some dynamics transcend eras.
In terms of school business, financial realities are the linchpin of the plot. Tuition remission plays a key role, as Mary, the kitchen manager, explains she initially took the job at Barton so her son would have a top-notch education. She loses him at age 19 when he is drafted to serve in the Vietnam War because he, unlike his wealthy classmates, can’t afford to go to college. A scholarship enabled Mr. Hunham, the long-time classics teacher, to attend Barton when he was a student. Meanwhile, it’s made clear time and time again that wealth is essential to running the school and that most students have it. It’s implied that Angus, the student at the center of the story, is accepted into Barton after being expelled from other schools because his stepfather is rich. Conflicts between these economic circumstances – the impact of financial standing on people’s world views — are what propel the dynamics of the unlikely relationships at the core of the plot.
The movie also makes clear that there is little racial diversity among students, faculty and staff at Barton. In one sequence, students chase each other down various hallways adorned with thick-framed oil portraits of venerable school leaders, who appear to look stoically upon the antics; they are all white men of a certain age, formally dressed and formally posed. Clearly Barton has progress to make in this regard over the next 50 years, as it works toward a more inclusive and equitable future.
So the movie serves up subtle commentary on some ongoing challenges faced by independent schools, but I would be remiss not to report how it also showcases moments of real heart and community that are so often the hallmark of our schools. The three protagonists find solace, empathy for one another and true camaraderie among themselves. As Mr. Hunham says in the beginning, “Not for ourselves alone, are we born,” quoting Cicero. It is an apt quote not only for the students he teaches but also for school leaders today who play an integral role in shaping the collective narrative of our educational communities. “The Holdovers” reminds us of the profound impact we can have on others we work with and work for, fostering a sense of belonging and shared mission. And I for one shed a tear watching the final moments shared between the curmudgeonly teacher and the misfit student on screen. For me, this connection portrays the very best of what our schools achieve so often every day.
All these musings come at a time when the NBOA Board of Directors has invited several prominent individuals from our membership to serve on a Boarding Schools Working Group so the association can develop a greater understanding of this segment of our community. Chief business officers at boarding schools and those with a boarding component will soon receive a link to a survey via email. We are seeking one response per school, and urge all boarding school business leaders to participate so that NBOA can better serve you and your schools needs more effectively.
While Hollywood may be presenting one version of your world, we want to get the most accurate picture of what’s really happening today in your own words. Thank you in advance for your participation. And very best wishes to all in this new year, as we work toward the best of what our learning communities can be.