KJ Doughton, 18 April 2003
Perhaps my head was
buried in an isolated burrow when children first embraced Louis
Sachar’s best-selling book, "Holes," in 1998. Five years later,
surrounded by anxious, pre-teen theater goers squirming restlessly
in their seats, I acknowledge the informed banter of children that
know far more about the story than I do.
"I wonder when we’ll see Mr. Sir,"
squealed a grade schooler from one row back. "I hope they do a good
job with the yellow lizards," asserted another small fry scrunched
three seats down on my left.
Eavesdropping on such discussions,
an obsessive thought kept running through my mind. Am I the only
one here not familiar with Sachar’s beloved tale of troubled kids
banished to a dusty work camp, where they dig blister-inducing holes
to "build character?"
No matter. Early into its first
enchanting reel, Andrew Davis’ adaptation had already won over a
previously uninitiated sap like me. Holes is a spirited,
unique story of children uniting to overcome both persistent curses
of the past and troubling hardships of the present.
All chaos breaks loose when a pair
of sneakers falls from the sky and into the world of Stanley Yelnats
(Shia LaBeouf). Before you can say Reebok, a patrol car screeches
forth and picks up Stanley, who is unjustly accused of stealing the
shoes. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the youth’s sad-sack family,
including his father, a hard-luck inventor (played by Henry "The
Fonz" Winkler, going against the grain of his too-cool "Happy Days"
persona) whose quest for the ultimate shoe deodorizer is a dismal
To pay penance for his alleged
crime, Stanley is shipped to Camp Green Lake, where a corrupt Warden
(Sigourney Weaver) and her redneck yes-man, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight,
whose leathery grimaces, and macho stances bring to mind a John
Wayne wannabe with serious insecurity issues), rule the roost.
With the unforgiving sun beating
down on them from dawn ‘til dusk, Stanley and a handful of other
teens don orange prison suits, brandish shovels, and stagger into
the lunar landscape of a Texas desert. Despite the camp’s name,
Green Lake has long since dried up, with the only liquid in sight
handed out in sparse supply by stingy Mr. Sir.
As he earns the respect of his
peers, Stanley teaches a quiet, curly-haired prisoner named Zero (Khleo
Thomas) how to read. Meanwhile, he suspects that the warden, a
temperamental witch who scratches her foes with poison-slathered
fingernails, has a hidden agenda behind the relentless digging.
After this original setup has been
established, director Andrew Davis strategically heaps on flashbacks
that connect Stanley’s distant family past to the present. A
hex-casting gypsy (Eartha Kitt), several dozen deadly yellow
lizards, two jars of severely outdated peaches, and a doomed love
affair between a schoolteacher (Patricia Arquette) and a handyman (Dule
Hill) are but a few of the links that provide Stanley’s salvation.
Holes is one of the few
films in recent memory that serves up a juvenile hero who feels
real, decent, and genuinely likeable. LaBeouf plays Stanley as an
honest, unassuming fellow whose assertiveness blossoms before out
eyes. Even as he is bullied by the veteran tough kids and belittled
by the warden’s uncaring crew, Stanley always tries to do the right
thing. There’s no hip, callous cynicism anywhere in sight.
Hopefully, LaBeouf will continue to create root-worthy characters,
and not feel obligated to "grow up" by playing a psychopath, a
junkie, or a gigolo his next time out.
Out of the adult performances, Jon
Voight’s Mr. Sir is destined for the time capsule. Hunching forward
like a cowboy poised for a shootout, Voight’s crusty, weathered
overseer looks like some chronically constipated crab.
Adding a tasty dimension to
Holes’ barren landscapes is a soundtrack of rock and country
folk by artists as diverse as Shaggy, Moby, the Eels, and Pepe
Deluxe. Whenever the digging becomes too redundant, and Davis’ film
threatens to evaporate under the oppressive heat, a soulful voice
breaks out of the mirage to liven things up.
With Holes, Andrew Davis
resurrects his reputation as a top-notch craftsman of the cinema.
Having fashioned career-best projects for actions icons Chuck Norris
(Code of Silence), Steven Seagal (Under Siege), and
Harrison Ford (The Fugitive), the director has tackled
children’s fables and emerged with a picture as unique and appealing
as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He’s a filmmaker
who’s full of surprises.
Tim Blake Nelson
PG - Parental
Some material may
not be appropriate