Director : Andrew Davis Cronenberg
Screenplay : Louis Sachar (based on his novel)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Shia LaBeouf (Stanley Yelnats), Sigourney Weaver (The Warden Walker), Jon Voight (Mr. Sir), Patricia Arquette (Katherine “Kissin’ Kate” Barlow), Tim Blake Nelson (Dr. Pendanski), Khleo Thomas (Zero), Jake M. Smith (Squid), Byron Cotton (Armpit), Brenden Jefferson (X-Ray), Miguel Castro (Magnet), Siobhan Fallon (Mrs. Yelnats), Max Kasch (Zig-Zag), Henry Winkler (Stanley Yelnats III), Nathan Davis (Stanley Yelnats II), Scott Plank (Charles “Trout” Walker), Dule Hill (Sam)
Holes is definitely not your typical Disney family movie. Set in a work camp for convicted juveniles in the middle of a dry lakebed in the desolation of deep West Texas, it is visually striking, with the harsh images on screen matched by a surprisingly genuine depiction of troubled youth. Granted, in the end all the juvenile delinquents turn out to be generally good kids at heart, but the depiction of the aggressive and often mean-spirited ways in which they interact gives the film a rough edge and a taste of truthfulness, rather than the sugar-coating that usually accompanies such feel-good films.
The story is based on the 1998 Newberry-Award-winning book by Louis Sachar, who director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) was smart enough to insist write the screenplay. Not having read the enormously popular book, I cannot make any direct comparisons, but my suspicion is that Sachar and David worked closely to ensure a tonal match between page and screen. Holes is something of an oddity, but that’s what makes it so watchable—it immediately stands out from the generally mediocre muck that is passed off these days as “family entertainment.”
Narratively, Holes is quite complex, intermixing as it does three different narratives that take place each a generation apart. The modern-day narrative thread concerns a supremely unlucky kid named Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf, star of the TV show Even Stevens), who is wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes and, as punishment, is shipped off to Camp Green Lake, the aforementioned desert work camp, for 18 months. There, he and a few dozen other boys spend their days in the broiling sun each digging a single hole five feet deep and five feet wide. Why? Because, according to one of the camp wardens, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), “You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day long in the hot sun, it makes him a good boy. That’s our philosophy here at Camp Green Lake.” Uh-huh.
Actually, there is an entirely different reason for the boys digging all those holes, one that relates back to the second narrative thread, which takes place in the late 1800s and involves a school teacher named Katherine Barlow (Patricia Arquette) who becomes a notorious outlaw known as “Kissin’ Kate” after her interracial romance with young man named Sam (Dule Hill) ends in his being killed. Kate’s story takes place in the same area when Green Lake was actually a lake and there was a thriving community there, and it introduces some mythical overtones involving the land going bad when love dies.
The third narrative thread explains why poor Stanley is so unlucky. According to his grandfather (Nathan Davis), his great-great-great grandfather made the mistake of not following through on a promise to a fortune teller (Eartha Kitt), and, as a result, he and his whole family have been cursed forever. Given Stanley’s luck and his own father’s (Henry Winkler) misfortune (he’s an aspiring inventor who is determined to end shoe odor), it seems like the curse is for real.
The majority of the film, however, takes place at the ironically titled Camp Green Lake. There, we get to know a motley group of convicted kids, including a tousle-headed boy named Zero (Khleo Thomas), who everyone assumes is stupid because he doesn’t talk, but turns out to be the smartest and most resourceful kid in the camp. We also get to know the three crooked adults who run the show: The aforementioned Mr. Sir, who is played by Jon Voight in such hilariously over-the-top fashion that he quickly becomes the film’s greatest asset; the Warden, a wicked-tough woman played by Sigourney Weaver who paints her nails with rattlesnake venom; and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), the goofy counselor who alternates between cheesy self-help rhetoric and stunningly cruel put-downs. The power dynamics among these three form one of the movie’s most intriguing subplots, as Mr. Sir and Dr. Pendanski are clearly terrified of the Warden and, like put-down siblings, take it out on the kids at the camp.
Holes works because it’s an original story that doesn’t talk down to its intended audience or coat the hardships of life with feel-good syrupy sweetness. Yes, it has a traditionally happy ending where all the good people are rewarded and the bad people punished, but the movie does such a good job developing these characters and their interrelations that it feels right and not forced. It also benefits greatly from the talented cast, both the well-know adult stars and the lesser known child actors, who come across as genuine and believable, a feat at which far too many movies centered around kids miserably fail.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick