Sadness and loneliness are common experiences, especially during the holidays. We may have experienced a loss during the year or the death of a relative, a dear friend, or an animal companion. We may have had a breakup of a relationship, been forced to change jobs or retire, been a victim of a natural disaster, or had a health crisis. The holidays punctuate the year and remind us of everything that has happened before them.
In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo writes of a Tibetan myth that encourages people to welcome and embrace sadness as a catalyst to all that is life-changing and transformative. Spiritual warriors must have a broken heart because “it is only through the break that the wonder and mysteries of life can enter us.” The same idea is echoed in a saying by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzke, quoted in Estelle Frankel’s Sacred Therapy: “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”
The Holdovers is director Alexander Payne’s eighth movie (see “Also Recommended”) and six of them have made our Most Spiritually Literate Films lists. He focuses on the spiritual growth that can come out of relationships.
This film is set at Barton Academy, a posh New England boarding school in the 1970s. Most of the wealthy and entitled students are heading home for the Christmas holidays. Five students – the “holdovers” – have nowhere to go. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a usually grouchy classics professor, has been assigned the task of watching over them. This may be punishment from the headmaster for his refusing to give a major donor’s son a better grade. In general, his critical morality is not appreciated by the students or other faculty. To the students remaining at Barton, the holidays loom as a time of more studying and boring meals.
When one of the holdovers’ fathers arrives in a private helicopter to take the group to a ski resort, only one has to remain at school, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). His mother has told him he can’t come home because she is going on a honeymoon with his new stepfather. Also present with the professor and the disappointed student is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cook and cafeteria administrator who is mourning the death of her son in the Vietnam War. As the days pass, these three discover that they have more to share than just their sadness and loneliness.
Although The Holdovers has many magical comic moments, the screenplay by David Hemingson is even more surprising with its emotional exploration of the ways in which both sadness and loneliness can be transformed into something life-changing. The three leads put in inspiring performances, totally convincing us that broken hearts can become open hearts, sadness shared is sadness dispelled, and loneliness can be the basis of understanding relationships.
Over the Christmas holidays take these spiritual messages from The Holdovers to heart.
- Be hospitable to difficult people.
- When sadness slows you down, don’t deny it; savor your feelings.
- Reframe your loneliness and see what you can learn from it.
- Honor the vulnerability and fragility that accompany sadness and loneliness.
- Accept the mystery of both the arrival and departure of sadness and loneliness.