From a distance, the campuses look just like those of the small colleges that dot the Acela corridor, the ones with the quirky mascots and the endless acapella groups. But wait for the class bell to ring and you’ll realize: Oh—the people walking out of these stark colonial buildings are children.

The American boarding school holds a special place in the national canon. It’s a staple setting on high-school reading lists (A Separate Peace), permeates preppy fashion, and provides an intriguing data point in a person’s bio, whether on Raya or in polite conversation. Boarding school is shorthand for things Americans otherwise tremble to talk about: class, inheritance, youth, potential, exclusion, secrets, intelligence, extroversion, power, fate.

This winter’s The Holdovers is already one of the most humane, nuanced entries in the strangely durable genre of the boarding-school movie. It takes place over the 1970-1971 winter break at fictional Barton Academy, where snow pummels the campus and the Vietnam War ripples around the campus’s patrician buildings. Five boys have been left behind to weather the holidays under the watch of Paul Giamatti’s Mr. Hunham—the flinty, odd, wholly committed Classics professor—and Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Mary, the head of the school’s kitchens, who works tirelessly as she grieves for her son, a Barton alumnus recently killed in Vietnam. Then one boy’s family, in a wonderfully American display of noblesse oblige, whisks all but one of the holdover students off to the ski slopes (the family chopper lands on a campus green and transports them to freedom), leaving behind the defiant, haunted, fundamentally decent Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) to spend the holiday with the two adults.

What unfolds both deepens and subverts the boarding-school tropes as we know them. The Holdovers’ verisimilitude is unmatched. Director Alexander Payne filmed on location, shooting at Groton, St. Mark’s, Northfield Mount Hermon and Deerfield. The audience receives what OG preppy poet and St. Mark’s alum Robert Lowell called “the grace of accuracy”: the ageless stainless-steel pots in the kitchens; the narrow white hallways in the dorms, the terribly bright New England light lancing through old windows; athletics as a place of communal purification. Human accuracies radiate too. Hunham’s deepest academic passion isn’t vaguely Classical. He loves Carthage, the empire that resisted Rome and sent their biggest badass to lead armored elephants across the Alps. The vibes extend to the cast. Giamatti is a Choate alum. Sessa was cast when he was at Deerfield.

The fidelity doesn’t end at the chapel. Few of the movies in the genre leave any space for a world outside the campus, and if they do, it’s usually an analogous boys’ or girls’ school nearby.

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