The recent film The Holdovers is set in a boys boarding school, complete with blazers, cranky teachers, and coming-of-age drama. A difficult boy, Angus, has nowhere to go for Christmas break and must be watched by a difficult teacher, Mr. Hunham, who is assisted by Mary, the school’s head chef and grieving mother of a son killed in Vietnam. Though its story is its own, The Holdovers’ setting is familiar. There are young men, some of them unserious, all of them in serious clothes, some winter scenes, some bullying, and a “choice of life” that must be made. We know this setting from Dead Poets Society (1989) and School Ties (1992) and The Catcher in the Rye and other works. Relatively few Americans attend boarding schools, but we have nearly all seen a movie set in one. What makes a boys’ boarding school such a great setting for a powerful story?

To some extent, a boarding school is a good story setting because of what it offers authors. A boarding school in the northeast, especially in winter, is just aesthetically pleasing. The snowy scenes in movies like Dead Poets Society are beautiful. The buildings are old and dignified and balance well against youth and its indignities. A boarding school offers a highly contained environment, without forcing an author to resort to living-room drama. A boarding school can also be portrayed as a strict, controlling environment, perfectly designed to clash with an overwhelming desire for liberty. This was the contrast presented so well in Dead Poets Society.

A boarding school is also an excellent setting for a serious movie about coming-of-age because it is a place where we expect people and things to be taken seriously. The faculty should be highly intelligent and well-educated. The students are expected to have a good vocabulary. They are supposed to be held to high moral standards. When they do not meet those standards, as in The Emperor’s Club (2002)—when a student turns out to be a cheater—it is a grave disappointment. In The Holdovers, Mr. Hunham often emphasizes that “Barton boys don’t lie.” The main characters in a boarding school story also dress well. And we take people more seriously when they dress well. The struggles of youth may be just as earnest in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) or Superbad (2007) or Dope (2015), but those movies become part of altogether different canons. We know it is a serious movie when we see the boys in blazers and penny loafers and the principal is called “headmaster.”

Boarding schools offer a particular setting for authors, but they can be ideal for portraying some universal observations about adult life in a coming-of-age movie. For example, making our way in the world without the constant presence of parents is a challenging and important part of growing up and living as independent adults. In a boarding school, the parents are very visibly absent. Boarding school dramas tend to do well portraying the challenges of a life with absent parents. In The Holdovers and Dead Poets Society, we see boys with a strong sense of abandonment by their parents. In Dead Poets Society, Todd Anderson’s parents don’t remember what birthday gifts they’ve sent him. In The Holdovers, Angus’s mother and stepfather want a Christmas without him. In Dead Poets Society, Todd Anderson’s parents don’t remember what birthday gifts they’ve sent him. In Catcher in the Rye, we see a boy disconnected from his parents. But a boarding school movie can also show us a boy sent away for his own betterment, striving to make his parents proud even without their oversight. This is the case in School Ties, where Brendan Fraser’s character is recruited for football but must demonstrate his other, also remarkable, qualities.

Boarding school dramas may revolve around mostly wealthy high school students, but they comment on experiences shared by all adults. As we age, we receive more of our life lessons outside the home. Parental absence is part of adulthood. We cannot always turn to our parents, but there may be other significant adults around. How do we find them? How do we learn from them? In Catcher in the Rye, Holden is immune to the help offered by former teachers. In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating changes the lives of many students (though there is some debate about whether the change was for the better). What is at stake in following non-parental adults? A boarding school story poses those questions well.

Another aspect of adulthood presented well in boarding school stories is dealing with the expectations of others. Who are we supposed to be? How do we square that with who we want to be? With who we are? We assume that in a boarding school, every student comes equipped with expectations. In Dead Poets Society, those questions lead a student down a dark path. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden is ashamed of how often he disappoints his parents. In School Ties, David Greene combats the expectations of his peers, who underestimate his character and courage. All adults making their way in the world face some kind of contrast between what they perceive to be expectations about themselves and their actual realities. Even those not struggling with particular expectations are entering a world with established traditions and asking how we can fit in. In a fictional, elite, northeastern school, the old buildings highlight the challenges of youth entering a world that is already established. We may enter that world through other, non-Gothic doors, but it is just as established.

A feeling of isolation is considered one of the hazards of modern life. Every boarding school story includes a character who feels alone, despite being surrounded by others. Holden Caufield clearly doesn’t fit in, at his current school or any previous one. In The Holdovers, Angus has no friends. Mr. Hunham, his teacher and an alum, also happens to have no friends. All of us have a need for community, but many of us struggle to find it, even when we are with others. It is very possible to have no privacy and still find next to no personal connection with others. A boarding school, where the main character is essentially never alone, is a setting practically designed to demonstrate that feeling and the hurt that accompanies the feeling of isolation.

The privileged students of a boarding school are perhaps best at portraying another truth learned in adult life, which is that things aren’t always as good as they seem. In The Holdovers, Mr. Hunham complains about the rich, spoiled students he has to watch. He says, “They’ve had it easy their whole lives.” Mary is quick to respond: “You don’t know that. Did you?” And she’s right, he doesn’t know the backstory of every boy. She adds, “Besides, everybody should be with their people at Christmas.” Even if someone has had a privileged life, it doesn’t mean they deserve a bad experience at Christmas, or ever. This is a lesson that works in all settings. At many points in life, we’re tempted to believe that others have had it easier. Certainly some have. But we can’t always tell which ones from outward appearances or bank accounts. And even the privileged deserve human relationships. Life isn’t fair, and we can spend our whole lives resenting those who we are sure have it better than us, but it will be energy wasted and opportunities missed.

If boarding school stories are exceptionally good at communicating certain universal themes despite the privileged setting, the lasting appeal of the setting offers some lessons, as well. The older we get, the more it is tempting to act as though the challenges faced by young people are somehow not serious. They are. They are serious even if those challenges are not new. There is no reason to take the teens in Oscar-attempting movies more seriously than the teens we know.

Every boarding school story highlights a young person who needs to be cared for. One of the powerful scenes in The Holdovers is when Mary holds Angus’ hand while his parents are in a meeting with the headmaster. Mary is no softy, but she sees what Angus needs, and she responds. All boarding school stories make painfully clear the importance of caring for young people, even if they are not “ours.”

Entering adulthood is hard, and it shouldn’t be done alone. Young people need to be raised, they need to be socialized, they need to be both disciplined and encouraged. In The Holdovers, Angus has effectively been abandoned by his mother in many ways, but he is also very annoying. He needs to be cared for and he needs to be coached into better behavior. The same happens to be true of his teacher, Mr. Hunham. But Mr. Hunham is still able to help Angus. The imperfections of Mary and Mr. Hunham remind us that we don’t have to be perfect to be helpful. And all the characters remind us that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved, or loving.

Lastly, it may seem to be the most superficial observation, but the importance of attire is another lesson we can all take from these movies. A coming-of-age film is a serious film when the teenagers are in tweed. We can pass on that wisdom. We take people more seriously when they are in suits or dressed nicely. David Sedaris wrote a book titled Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but if you want them to go as far as they can, dress them a bit better. Whether or not that is how life should be, we can see that this is how life is. Like the boys in the boarding schools, until we change the world, we make our choice of life in a world with already established rules. Why not start our young people off on the best-dressed foot possible?

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Very thoughtful essay, thank you. I always enjoyed movies set in boarding schools, but never knew why or really thought about it.

    Nobody in my family ever went to boarding school, but somehow my daughter ended up at one. We had serious reservations, but I have to admit it was overall a very positive experience.

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