Holes

April, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Andrew Davis

Starring:Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Khleo Thomas, Tim Blake Nelson, Sigourney Weaver, Byron Cotton, Patricia Arquette, Dulé Hill, Henry Winkler, Nate Davis, and Eartha Kitt

Here's a movie for a decidedly underserved market--the slightly pre-middle school set, too old for the kiddy efforts of Disney and Saturday morning cartoons, but still young enough to be enthralled by a fairy tale told with intelligence and idealism. Holes, (adapted by Louis Sachar from his National Book Award-winning novel of the same name) were published to fanatic response 5 years ago. In it, he invites his youthful readers to be aware of life's imperfections while remaining enchanted by the prospect of the goodness in people, all wedded to a healthy realism about values and their role in life.  Not since William Goldman adapted his gently fantastical The Princess Bride for Rob Reiner's 1987 film of the same name have audiences been provided with such a full measure of savvy about the way things really are combined with a yearning about the way they ought to be. Holes has that same winning combination, and it richly deserves the box-office success it's sure to receive.

Here's a story of purloined sneakers, Latvian pigs, inter-generational curses, a cure for foot odor and a beautiful blond outlaw in the old West named Kissing Kate Barlow; how can you not have fun with that?  Add a cunningly-layered plot which moves back and forth in time, lace the narrative with examples of mendacity, bullying behavior and racism that really hurts decent people, (without drifting into cynicism or wafting off into a saccharine whitewashing of human venality) and you've got something that can enchant its intended juvenile audience while effortlessly holding the interest of adults in the bargain.

Stanley Yelnast, a likeable young man from a warm, if slightly dysfunctional family, finds himself sent to a Texas detention camp for stealing a pair of sneakers donated to a homeless shelter by a famous athlete. His keepers include a bitchy warden played to chilling perfection by Sigourney Weaver, a craven Camp Director (Jon Voight) who insists on being addressed as "Mr. Sir" by the inmates, and an obsequious counselor only a tenth as bright as he thinks he is, captured perfectly right down to the zinc oxide on his nose by Tim Blake Nelson. This trio presides over a collection of society's youthful rejects; truants, young thieves, and kids who've simply fallen through society's cracks. They're not a particularly likeable bunch, and they don't take very kindly to Stanley's arrival from an intact family comprised of inventor-father (Henry Winkler) who's determined to find the answer to foot odor, a Mom whose sincerity exceeds her mental capacity and a grandfather who blames the family's constant bad fortune on the curse placed on Stanley's great-great-grandfather by a Latvian gypsy woman, (played by an African American actress who looks just like Eartha Kitt—probably because she is). 

The unholy staff of Camp Green Lake assigns its young wards the task of digging holes in a vast dried lakebed, because the process is "character building". But they're also instructed to bring anything "interesting" they unearth to Ms. Weaver, whose armory of weapons contains lethal fingernail polish and a style of interrogation ominously similar to that employed by many of the nuns who taught me in grade school. She and her two male confederates ration the boy's drinking water and shower chits as though they were made of gold, and director Andrew Davis convincingly presents all this as a pre-pubescent Stalag 17 anyone would be wise to avoid. 

When Stanley finds a monogrammed gold cylinder during the course of his excavating labors and then begins to teach Zero, another inmate, how to read, Weaver and company turn really nasty, prompting a slickly-designed resolution to Stanley's incarceration and the family curse that ties up the loose ends of the storyline with unexpected zest.

While the young convicts are well cast and the adult characters blend perfectly into the story's rhythms, Voight has a real field-day here, giving audiences a craven bully it can really love to hate. He's an alchemist with a potbelly and a Colt .45, who turns feral into fun; he must have enjoyed playing this part, because he embodies it so seamlessly. Badgering the boys, snidely confiding to his crony Nelson when it suits his purpose and toadying around Weaver, Voight wears his battered Stetson, riverboat gambler mustache and cowboy pomposity to perfection. It's a scenery-chewing exercise in excess, and he nails it, to the audience's delight.

Holes isn't a great movie, but it's great fun to watch, and if it heralds a new focus on thoughtful productions aimed at kids who both read and think, (as its director has publicly declared) it's a wonderful new initiative indeed.                 

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