There is a moment in the outstanding new film “The Holdovers” when three very different individuals at a New England prep school — a student, a teacher and a cook — sit down for a small Christmas dinner in a lavish but empty dining hall.

The student, played by Dominic Sessa, tells the cook, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, that he’s never had a “real family Christmas” like this before and thanks her. She graciously accepts his thanks, and then the teacher, played by the incomparable Paul Giamatti, proposes a toast to his “two unlikely companions.”

In many contemporary stories, particularly Christmas movies, this scene would be a tribute to the power of the “chosen family.” The film would fade out, having assured us that these people had found happiness with people unrelated to them. Throw in some questions of privilege and race relations between the two white men and the Black cook, and you’ve got a story that fits every cliché that permeates even well-crafted social “message” films nowadays.

But “The Holdovers” is too smart for such simple narratives. It offers a more thoughtful take, imparting a story we intuitively know to be true while challenging virtually all sides of the debate on family and privilege. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)

For decades now, debate over the definition of family has dominated political, social and academic discussions. It would take volumes to discuss the countless nuances of this conversation. But broadly speaking, the debate has concerned those who champion the traditional nuclear family, and those who argue that nontraditional families are equal to, or even superior to, the nuclear family. These would include single-parent households, LGBTQ households, or “chosen family,” defined by The New York Times as “close relationships and connections formed outside of a nuclear family.”

Enter “The Holdovers.”

By the time the Christmas dinner takes place, we know that Paul, the teacher, is the faculty member chosen to “babysit” the kids who were not going home for Christmas. Most of these “holdovers” end up getting rescued by a rich parent who takes them skiing. The student, Angus, however, is the exception. His mom cannot be reached because she’s decided to run off with a new husband for a honeymoon, leaving Angus without permission to leave school custody. He says his father is dead.

The situation of Mary, the cook, is different. “My little sister Peggy and her husband invited me to go visit them,” she explains, “but I feel like it’s too soon.”

The film is set in 1970, and Mary’s son, Curtis, died in Vietnam months earlier. “Like Curtis will think that I’m abandoning him. You know? This is the last place that my baby and I were together.”

In both situations, this might be seen as commentary on the inadequacies and corruptions of the traditional family: the cruelties of Angus’ mother embracing her new husband at the expense of her child, and Mary being unwilling to embrace her remaining family due to grief over her late son.

But there’s more to this.

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After this makeshift family Christmas dinner, Angus tries to escape Paul’s clutches to visit his father, who we learn is alive, but in a mental institution not far away. Shunned by his former wife, Angus’ father has descended into schizophrenia. Yet even still, he represents a link to something Angus badly needs, no matter how damaged he is.

When Paul bends the rules to allow Angus visit his father, we understand that, to Angus, the cures to the wounds from his mother’s callousness is not found entirely inside his new, “chosen” family, but in the last vestiges of his traditional one.

Mary’s story is similar. After some time escaping to Boston with her new “chosen” family, she ultimately finds the courage to visit her sister. A brief, tender scene of Mary sitting on the couch, talking intimately to her sister, visibly pregnant with the next generation of their family, as her sister’s husband does household chores, speaks volumes. Much like Angus, the cure for her loss is in embracing the imperfect traditional family she has left.

Paul has no family. We learn he had a love long ago, but it didn’t work out. And the woman on staff at the school that seemed interested, we discover, was just being nice. She’s got another man. “I find the world a bitter and complicated place,” he confides in Angus, “and it seems to feel the same way about me.”

Paul might well be seen as the precise sort of person suffering from our epidemic of loneliness or isolation, decades before anyone was talking about such problems. Worse, we later learn that Paul is a teacher at a prep school, rather than a tenured scholar somewhere else, because he got kicked out of Harvard, unfairly, because another person’s familial connections worked against him. In other words, it’s the abuse of family that has, in part, caused Paul’s lifelong abandonment and frustration. 

The trio’s lives presents a knottier vision of family than we might expect. But one cannot escape that this tribe is made up of two, relatively well-off white men, and a less-privileged Black woman. Indeed, Mary’s son died in Vietnam because he joined the military due to the fact they couldn’t afford college.

Neither the racial nor class-based differences are discussed explicitly in the film. There is no need. That Paul and Angus are higher in the social pecking order is clear. Yet neither treat Mary badly due to her station, and there is no easy cure, or emotional release, for the issues that ail her.

And yet Mary, despite her modest circumstances and heartbreaking loss is, in many ways, better off than Paul and Angus. She is the most emotionally mature. At one point, Mary berates Paul, for berating Angus, who was being insensitive to Mary’s loss of her son, saying he’d rather him be anywhere else.

Mary isn’t having any of it, “You don’t tell a boy that’s been left behind at Christmas that nobody wants him,” she says, “What’s wrong with you?” Mary realizes that Angus is much like her son. Paul also asserts that Angus and his classmates have “had it easy their whole lives.” Mary doesn’t accept this. “You don’t know that. Did you?”

What gives Mary this strength and insight is never explicitly stated. But Mary’s family remains largely intact, despite the loss of her son (and her son’s father, who also died prematurely). She knows she is wanted by her sister and brother-in-law. Angus, on the other hand, confesses that his repeated misbehaviors come in large part from his desire to get the attention that his privileged, wealthy upbringing, by irresponsible parents, denied him.

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No reasonable person would deny that an African American woman like Mary, smack in the middle of the ongoing Boston desegregation controversies of the ’60s and ’70s, and in the middle of second-wave feminism, faces challenges in life that are different from her white, male associates. But the strength and warmth of her family, and the emotional maturity of a woman that has suffered and survived a mother’s greatest loss, provides a privilege neither Angus nor Paul has. This is a reality that does not fit neatly into our popular discourse.

“The Holdovers,” presents a much more complete and accurate view of our society than the simplistic accounts that we tell ourselves and that our political narratives demand. The chosen family is necessary, but is not complete. And the reverse is also true. Our “traditional” family is so important that we sometimes need the help of our “chosen” family to find and repair it. Challenges of race, gender and economic status matter, but the support of family, both traditional and chosen, matters more in the face of hardship.

Without giving away too much, the conclusion of “The Holdovers” is about one member of this makeshift family sacrificing their own welfare to pay for the real or perceived sins of another. It is a fitting end for a film that occurs over Christmas. For all the discussion of makeshift and orthodox family, of privilege and disadvantage, it all comes down to loving your neighbor as yourself, and being grafted into the family of Christ, who came to Earth to mend our brokenness.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.

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