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An argument for being bored together

A movie set in 1971 helps us understand what technology has taken from us

Paul Giamatti poses with the best actor trophy (which he won for his performance in The Holdovers) at the 81st Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 7 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello

An argument for being bored together
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I’m a sucker for New England Boarding School movies. There is, of course, Dead Poets Society which I hate, School Ties which I love, and a litany of other, lesser, movies in this genre in which you throw a bunch of affluent WASPY kids together in some old, ivy-covered dormitories, throw in some light casual cheating, throw in some class struggle or light racism, and then let the hijinks ensue. The formula almost never disappoints.

The Holdovers was released in 2023 but was made to look like it was made in 1971—in addition to being set in 1971, at a snow-covered boarding school somewhere near Boston. They had me at “made to look like it was made in 1971.” I was in, immediately, and more in when I saw the vintage-looking rating screen (R, for teenage boys in 1971 talking like teenage boys in 1971), and what was either grainy-film stock or what was made (in post) to look like grainy film stock.

Paul Giamatti stars as a burned-out, disaffected middle-aged teacher, because this genre doesn’t work without a burned-out, disaffected middle-aged teacher. Just once, I would love to watch a movie about a teacher who is happy in his work. Anyway. Giamatti’s character has to stay on campus over break (convenient, because he of course has no one to go home to), to watch a handful of central-casting-ish students (jock, nerd, ethnic) who also have nowhere to go. One of the more attractive nerds (new find Dominic Sessa), becomes the other central figure in the movie. He has (of course) been tossed out of multiple other tony New England boarding schools for doing angry teen stuff—the motive for which angry teen stuff gets explained really well in the movie.

He and Giamatti—both repellent jerks in the first act—become very sympathetic by the third act. As does Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s character, who fills the important twofold role of both Being Black in A Modern Movie but also Allowing the Emotionally Shunted White Character to Feel Things. It sounds like I’m making light of this, but I’m not. This is a critical role in any boarding school movie, and she did it very well. In the movie she played a cook who has lost a son in Vietnam. They may both (Randolph and Giamatti) get Oscars, and they’d both deserve them.

Perhaps we need more unmediated time together, because relating to one another takes time.

In the vein of another boarding school classic, Scent of a Woman, these three broken people end up needing each other, and end up being good for each other—which we get to enjoy on a backdrop of completely-analog 1971-life, which is a life with no cell phones, no social media, old radios, old televisions, old cars, old records, but very current hairstyles, which (with the exception of Giamatti’s) would all look amazing if you dropped them into 2024.

The Holdovers is kind of about redemption, but is actually about the magic of being bored with other people, and the creativity and connection that comes as a result. You end up exploring campus buildings. You end up watching television together. You end up breaking bread together. Somebody gets hurt, and then cared for by the group. You hatch outlandish schemes together, and then carry them out. Sometimes you end up defending each other or taking the fall for each other—laying down one another’s lives. There’s a reason why these movies—always set in the past—always work. I daresay nobody will ever want to watch a movie about college (or boarding school) in 2024. What is there to be romantic about? “We had a really nice class session on Microsoft Teams?” No thanks.

In a modern context, of course, we don’t have much of an opportunity to be bored together, in that we can carry our televisions, our stereos, our classrooms, and all of our conversations with us on our phones. We can curate and self-promote and move-make and side-hustle—all while standing in line at the supermarket. We never have to be bored.

As a result, we are probably very productive. But we are also—if anecdotal evidence as well as everything written in the past decade is to be believed—very lonely. Perhaps we need more unmediated time together, because relating to one another takes time.

The Holdovers is an argument for long stretches of unmediated time, and the relational gold it can sometimes uncover.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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