Feb '24: The Holdovers
... plus a sip of hot chocolate!
Screen: The Holdovers
A refreshingly low stakes tale, The Holdovers is perhaps my favorite film of 2023. Emphasis on the low stakes here because that has seemingly become a rarity in Hollywood. Even as the industry moves away from franchise-saturated production lineups, many of the current films feel excessively weighty. For example, the summer smash hit duopoly “Barbenheimer” reconciled our existential ambiguity (Barbie) and grappled with ever-impending Armageddon (Oppenheimer). Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed both films and the memes that preluded them, but the high stakes made for an emotionally exhausting experience.
In contrast, The Holdovers is rather restrained in its tone and theme. Set at a Massachusetts boarding school in December 1970, the film explores the day-to-day trials of three broken people: the snarky Barton student, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), the curmudgeonly civics teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), and the heartsick school cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The three form a makeshift family and even manage to overlook their individual struggles as they muster up a modicum of holiday spirit. It makes for a heartfelt tale, but the emotions never fall out of hand thanks to director Alexander Payne, who routinely reels in the screenplay’s more evocative notes.
Payne understands subtlety, specifically that small gestures can be more affecting than loud actions. One striking example occurs between Mr. Hunham and Ms. Crane, his Barton colleague. The night of the Christmas party, hosted by Ms. Crane, seemingly affirms Angus’ earlier claim that the two have chemistry… the conversation starts with a peck under the mistletoe and continues with mutual complements over Mr. Hunham ‘s integrity and Ms. Crane’s sweetness. When Ms. Crane excuses herself to greet another guest, Mr. Hunham stares into the distance, unable to mask a coy smile peeking through his perpetually dreary face. Clearly, this is the first romantic spark, maybe human connection, that he has experienced in some time. No matter, a brief look-over-the-shoulder dissolves the misjudged chemistry when Ms. Crane is seen locking lips with that other guest. Mr. Hunham again stares into the distance but now without a smile nor even a frown, his one chance to feel something, anything, ended before it ever started.
Payne understands sincerity too, in that his characters are painted as the sum of their whole rather than tinted by their more polarizing traits. The Boston excursion yields a fair share of revealing moments be it Mr. Hunham’s expulsion from Harvard or the elder Mr. Tully’s whereabouts in a mental asylum. Yet the moment I found most affecting occurs at the hotel room when Mr. Hunham learns that Angus takes Librium, the same depression medication which he is prescribed. Upon the realization that a bleaker existence belies the smirking, shit-talking Angus, Mr. Hunham lets out a dejected sigh. Maybe Angus is destined to follow the melancholic footsteps of the recluse, but Payne does not let us sit with this feeling… instead, he transitions to the two at the bowling alley. Angus, with his customarily sardonic persona, jabs at Mr. Hunham’s lazy eye as he asks, “when we’re talking, which one should I look at?” This playful exchange reminds us that Angus’ identity is not wholly tethered to his medical diagnosis; besides, when we assess a person, depression (or any other ailment) is but one piece of the puzzle, not a framework to reorient all the other pieces.
And so, a through-line for The Holdovers is this notion that less is more. The film trusts us, the audience, to fill in the gaps with our own life experiences rather than fret over fully fleshing out each idea itself. Praising Payne’s deft touch is an indirect credit to the rest of his team. To use a culinary analogy, he is akin to Alice Waters serving figs on a plate (sorry, David Chang): the ingredients are so damn good themselves that they merely require a platform with minimal intervention to shine. To credit writer David Hemingson, for instance, Angus’ aforementioned jab at the bowling alley is inconspicuously sharp. Following the Librium finding, Angus recognizes that his vulnerability is exposed, so in a teenage tit for tat, his satiric quip over Mr. Hunham’s lazy eye is an attempt to get a similarly unobstructed view of him, or put simply, see eye to eye. Lest I forget to credit the actor performances too, especially given the extensive talk of Angus and Mr. Hunham, though I am yet to touch on the most impactful one.
Mary Lamb grounds a story otherwise exclusive to the privileged. Preparatory schools such as Barton Academy offer an exceptional education and a gateway to the country’s finest colleges, but, perhaps more importantly, also offer a haven adorned with Ivy-aesthetics, where the like-minded upper-class may share their formative years. None of this is lost on Mary, who jeeringly dubs the Barton students “little assholes.” She may be the help, but she is afforded more agency than the depictions of black caretakers before her (i.e. Mammy from Gone with the Wind). As she watches The Newlywed Game with Mr. Hunham, Mary reminisces over the combined effort between herself and her son, Curtis, to escape the “henhouse ladder” life of most those outside the Barton bubble. It starts with Mary accepting the job as the school cook and ends with Curtis completing his college education through the GI bill. Although Barton men can sympathize with the Lambs’ actual misfortune, they remain oblivious to its oppressive consequences.
Perhaps that is a presumptuous judgment, but one which is consistent with my own prep school experience. A fellow classmate, call him Zed, endured similar hardship to the Lambs: when most other students were chauffeured in a luxury car by one of their two parents, Zed rode three different busses on his commute between school and his single-mother-household (who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis). However, our student community seldom cared for those details – often decrying his “attempt to play the poor card” – and instead reminded Zed of his fortuitous opportunity. A foolish notion considering family background is more indicative of future success than public versus private schooling, but a sufficient notion for the stubborn. So, I am pleasantly surprised to see Mary’s struggle commemorated on the big screen, after an adjacent story before my own eyes had gone largely neglected.
Yes, some of the details in this review are somber, but nonetheless tangible and authentic too. These low notes enliven the more cheerful moments from the candy cane debauchery on ancient pottery to the noisemaker celebrations on New Year’s. Wrapped in a blanket, mug in hand, and hopefully surrounded by family, I will return to this film for many Decembers to come. Amidst the grandeur of holiday cheer, The Holdovers is a gentle hug. For me, it will serve as a reminder that more gratitude and hope can still be found in my immediate vicinity.
Stove: Hot Chocolate
Critics and audiences alike have dubbed The Holdovers a holiday classic. In this spirit, I will pair one holiday classic with another, hot chocolate. Just writing the words “hot chocolate” elicits a cozy memory. As the evening winds down, I look out at the winter snow painting the backyard white – from the emptied deck to the barren vegetable garden to the neighbor’s already-white fence (second coating gratis). I lie on the family room couch, shielded from the elements but not from my parents’ frugal thermostat, as I sip on this sweet, sleep-inducing tonic to warm me up.
Now, the recipe for hot chocolate is more contentious. America’s favorite wintertime drink fittingly comes with a number of niche preferences. At the entry level, there is the Swiss Miss instant mix (Swiss Miss Instant Piss, as some internet users deride), and at the other end, there is the sophisticated Parisian classic: chocolat chaud à l’ancienne. However, Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA, notes that chocolate (and vanilla, for that matter), originated from Mexico only to be bastardized into its contemporary candied form by the Europeans (e.g. pralines). For fellow Americans who want to try an authentic cup, be on the lookout next time you are in SoCal. Arellano references Los Angeles-based Xokolatl Café, operated by Semillas Community Schools, which served to improve school funds and promote its students’ Mexican heritage. While this café has since closed, there are no shortage of Mexican restaurants to satiate your craving (e.g. CaCao Mexicatessen), hell, give the champurrado from the local tamale guys a try too.
For me, these cultural reference points are second to your personal one: so long as you enjoy the drink and the process to make it, little else matters. When I drink hot chocolate, I like a soft symphony of bitter, sweet, and salty notes on the palate followed by a slight burn with each successive swallow. And not to worry, my cooking process is relatively smooth. Once you gather the ingredients, you will be running downhill en route to a delicious cup in T-30
seconds minutes (seconds is still possible should you settle for some Swiss Piss). Here we go!
· 1 cup (8 oz.) water
· 25 g. dark chocolate (70%)
· 2” cinnamon (cassia) stick
· ½ star anise whorl (4 carpels)
· ½ tsp. vanilla extract
· 1 generous pinch of salt
· 1 cup (8 oz.) whole milk
· 4 tsp. jaggery
1. Place the saucepan over low heat. Break the cinnamon and anise into quarters and toss them directly into the pan (~5 minutes). Note: stainless steel is preferable; do not use non-stick because the coating will fry.
2. Add the water, dark chocolate, vanilla, and salt. Cover the pan and bring liquid to a boil. Remove cover and stir occasionally until liquid reduces by ¼ (~8 minutes). Caution: liquid will boil over if unattended.
3. Add whole milk and jaggery. Again, cover the pan and bring liquid to a boil. Remove cover and stir occasionally until liquid reduces by ¼ (~12 minutes). Tip: adjust heat accordingly so liquid boils without rising.
4. Remove the pan from heat and spoon out the cinnamon and star anise. Let liquid cool (~5 minutes) and serve. Drink as is, or top it off with a candy cane, toasted marshmallow, or perhaps a shot of bourbon.
For the cinnamon and star anise, do not crush them with a mortar and pestle otherwise you will have to strain everything. Trust me, this is a pain should the chocolate fail to fully emulsify. Just break them by hand and toast them in the pan (the heat will activate their flavors all the same). For chocolate, bars are preferable to powders due to their cocoa butter. Moreover, 70% is the sweet spot: it retains the trademark bitterness and fully emulsifies with water. For me, the Ghiradelli at my local grocery works great, but feel free to give more artisan varieties a try!
For whole milk and jaggery, I understand some have dairy restrictions and jaggery is only found at South Asian groceries. My substitution suggestions are coconut milk and brown sugar, respectively. Amongst the non-dairy alternatives, coconut milk most closely resembles dairy milk with its creamy mouthfeel and higher fat content. For sweetener, although brown sugar is considerably sweeter than jaggery – 90% sucrose content versus 70% – it shares a similar caramel-like flavor (just subtract one teaspoon). Again, feel free to mix it up further – I have used oat milk and white sugar too.
Finally, a word on time and scale. The total time to prepare this hot chocolate is ~30 minutes. Because it only requires passive attention, I recommend preparing the drink in the background to other kitchen activities (e.g. cooking another dish or washing dirty dishes). The current recipe yields 1 large (12-oz.) or 2 small (6-oz.) servings, and it is easy to scale up – just increase each ingredient proportionally. Enjoy!