What Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Performance In The Holdovers Taught Me About Grief, Love, And The Enduring Human Spirit

Still image of Da'Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers.
(Image credit: Miramax)

From the first time I heard about The Holdovers, I knew that Alexander Payne reteaming with Paul Giamatti for the first time in 20 years was going to be one of the best movies of 2023. And I was right. Like several of my colleagues who couldn’t get enough of the Oscar-nominated film about a teacher, a student, and a school cook reluctantly spending the holidays together, I was floored by the humor, drama, and overall superb emotional tone of the touching dramedy.

Though Giamatti and newcomer Dominic Sessa, who played Paul Hunham and Angus Tully, respectively, were outstanding in their roles, there’s one performance that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. And that is Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s take on Mary Lamb, the school cook, who, despite having recently lost her son, was the rock for the other two holdovers.

In her critically acclaimed performance, Randolph, and her character, did more than entertain; she taught a great deal about grief, love, and the enduring human spirit. Allow me to explain…

Dominic Sessa, Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolp sitting around the dinner table at Christmas in The Holdovers

(Image credit: Focus Features)

What Happens To Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Mary Lamb In The Holdovers

The Holdovers is a movie about broken people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, or at least trying to learn how to move past various traumatic experiences they have endured. In Mary Lamb’s case, the Barton Academy cook is attempting to come to terms with the death of her son, Curtis, who was killed in action after being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. If losing her son wasn’t hard enough, Mary’s work offers her no escape from this insurmountable grief, as her son was a former student of the prestigious New England prep school, and his metaphorical ghost still walks the halls.

As Paul Hunham and Angus Tully endure their own personal battles and struggles in their personal and academic/professional lives, Mary spends most of the movie working through that grief, learning what it means to love again, and enduring it all to come to better terms with the death of her child and the world he left behind. This isn’t to say the journey is without its difficult moments and dramatic episodes, but the only way out is through; or so they say.

The Holdovers cast

(Image credit: Focus Features)

What The Performance Taught Me About Grief

I haven’t lost a child, and so I won’t even begin to say I understand what it is like to outlive a son or a daughter. However, after walking with Mary Lamb through the various stages of her grief following her son’s death, I have a far better understanding of the pain and suffering she must have been enduring during that process. 

What I began to learn about grief through this character is that it’s as if somehow you were able to combine the physical, emotional, and spiritual ups and downs of riding a wave and climbing a mountain. Some stretches are easier and smoother than others while some, which seem to come when you least expect them, leave you lonely, spent, and broken. But despite it all, Mary continued to pull herself through the peaks and valleys of her grieving process, which I found to be incredibly impactful and inspirational.

This incredibly powerful and oftentimes nuanced portrayal of a mother living with the fact that her baby is no longer there and that she has to continue living to keep his memory and legacy alive is one of the main reasons I believe Da’Vine Joy Randolph won a Golden Globe and has a lot of Oscar buzz heading into the Academy Awards.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers

(Image credit: Focus Features)

What The Performance Taught Me About Love

As I mentioned earlier, Mary Lamb is the rock that keeps the core group afloat in The Holdovers, despite having not fully come to terms with her son’s passing. While Mary is caring throughout the movie and doesn’t really give anyone a hard time despite being looked down upon and mistreated by some of the more affluent students and staff at Barton Academy, there are a handful of scenes where she becomes less of a cafeteria manager and more of a mother to Angus and sister to Paul.

Though she doesn’t come out and say she loves her fellow holdovers as family, Mary’s actions speak for themselves, especially when she sits down to comfort Angus when the student believes he’s getting kicked out of school at the end of the movie. Love isn’t words; love is action, love is comfort, love is stepping up and being there for a scared teenager when he feels lost and neglected. 

It should also be pointed out that this can also be seen in the friendship between Mary and Paul throughout the movie. She is kind and she is patient with the cantankerous instructor during their weeks together, but she doesn’t let him get off easy. This dynamic, which leads to one powerful scene after another, is honestly one of the best things about the movie.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers

(Image credit: Focus Features)

What The Performance Taught Me About The Enduring Human Spirit

But, more than anything else, Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Mary Lamb provides a tremendous and uplifting lesson about the enduring human spirit and how people can overcome immense adversity. After a Christmas Eve party, where she has a meltdown after seemingly coming to terms with her son’s tragic death, Mary turns a corner and begins to pick up the pieces of her life. 

Not long after that, Mary goes to visit her pregnant sister and has this incredible bonding experience while reminiscing about growing up and the upcoming birth of the child. Here is a woman who still holds onto her son’s memory but has also built enough strength to accept the reality and move on in a way. 

Then, at the end of the movie, as she’s giving Paul a goodbye gift after he’s canned from Barton, Mary says something to the effect of “What about me? I’m not going anywhere.” I like to see this as the grieving mother telling Paul, and herself, that she’s going to keep living, keep enduring, and keep holding on for a better tomorrow.

If you want to watch The Holdovers streaming to revisit Mary Lamb’s incredible journey and experience the lessons found within it again, you can do just that with a Peacock subscription. And if you want to see more great Da’Vine Joy Randolph performances (like her scene-stealing turn in Dolemite is My Name), we’ve got you covered there, as well.

Stream The Holdovers on Peacock.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.