In his first shot at screenwriting, children’s novelist Louis Sachar does a fantastic job of adapting his own work, manipulating pace and visually juggling several stories to create an equivalent sense of anxious page-turning on the screen. Protagonist Stanley Yelnats is the hapless victim of hereditary bad luck, beginning with his no-good great-great grandfather, and culminating in Stanley’s wrongful 18-month sentence to Camp Green Lake—a middle-of-nowhere juvenile reform camp filled with—and run by—rough characters. Day by day, the no-good great-great grandfather, Stanley’s own misfortune, the legend of the dry lake bed where Camp Green Lake is located, and the mystery of the holes the campers are required to dig every day begin to come together into one big, unbelievable story.
Young people who have read Sachar’s book particularly will be delighted at how the wasteland of Camp Green Lake is visualized: filmed mostly just outside Death Valley, the endless yellow landscape pock-marked with mysterious holes becomes its own bizarre world to the campers who can’t escape. Also delightful are the performances of the campers and their captors, Sigourney Weaver as the tyrannical warden and Jon Voigt as her pretty brainless right hand. Everything from Sachar’s dialogue to the sound track to the representation of juvenile delinquents is both hip and compassionate, and the resulting tone is the kind of adolescent cluelessness that perceives life as vaguely nightmarish, mostly inexplicable, and absolutely all about “me.” In its fantastically quirky and stylized way, the film works out fairly weighty questions regarding that typical childhood phase and succeeds, rather cleverly, in moving its adolescent characters past it and into a more conscious and more sensitive stage. They are definitely still kids, and concerns like “how to fit in and look cool” rank right up there with “how to understand adults,” and “how to treat people generally,” but the seriousness is underhanded—we’re too busy either laughing or biting our nails to realize by the end that we’ve learned an important lesson about selflessness.
Your average cinephile takes pride in measuring up, meeting quotas, and watching out for dividing lines—between good and bad especially, but also between domestic and foreign, masculine and feminine, sci-fi and fantasy, western and Eastern, between so many genres and sensibilities that each partition becomes its own contained world and several taken at once seem positively infinite in scope. Of course, history has shown that film’s scope is pretty close to infinite, but between the video game pod chases, perfectly molded coiffeurs, and self-congratulatory tales of yuppie wisdom that companies have decided we like in the last few years, glimpses of even an artfully told story, no matter what its genre, are increasingly difficult to catch.
Luckily, Holes is more than an artfully told story, but if the selection at your local multiplex on any given weekend is disappointing to you or your children, by all means opt for Holes. First and foremost, it’s a great piece of entertainment—director Andrew Davis’s stock in trade since The Fugitive. An array of colorfully-drawn characters and eccentric subplots will keep adults and older children on their toes, while younger kids might respond to the movie’s inclusion of a few staple young adult novel gags involving armpits and smelly sneakers. Davis’s direction is explanatory and pragmatic, closely following the Louis Sachar novel on which the film is based, while other crew departments flesh out a cinematic identity with ambitiously realistic detail—visual plot points, down-to-earth, washed-out cinematography, and meticulous, imaginative art direction.
But the story itself is what rules Holes. Contributions from Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Blake Nelson, and newcomers Shia LeBeouf and Khleo Thomas all display subtle awe for what Sachar (who was solely in charge of the film’s screenplay) has wrought, and smaller but no less important efforts from editors and sound artists are similarly devoted. And devoted they should be—Holes is for kids, yes, but it’s also for thinking, sensitive adults who haven’t seen a miraculous film from Hollywood since their teenage obsession with Star Wars or Jaws, who now buy books instead of DVDs, who have started to doubt the importance of genre lines in an art form relentlessly deprived of its “art” half, and who need to give their faith in narrative cinema a jumpstart.
Stringy Stanley Yelnats IV (LeBeouf) isn’t the luckiest of teenagers. When a pair of big-item sneakers (once worn by athlete-idol Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston) lands on his head from out of the blue like Newton’s apple or Eve’s forbidden fruit, Stanley is sent, in a hilariously fast-paced indictment of the juvenile justice system, to Camp Green Lake for eighteen months of penance. As it turns out, Camp Green Lake is neither green nor a lake, and like the best of fictional deserts, this one is populated by crudely vivid characters, haunted by a quirkily epic past, and turned into a broad, evocative metaphor for existential absurdity and everyone’s lifelong search for meaning. All with lean, childlike flair, of course.
Significantly enough, Stanley and his fellow inmates are forced to dig one five-foot-by-five-foot hole into the parched desert ground every day of their sentence at Green Lake. Between exhaustion, genuinely mean-spirited delinquent companions, the poisonous hypocrisy of camp “doctor” Pedanski (Nelson), the pot-bellied menace of Mr. Sir (Voight), and the steely presence of the camp warden (Weaver), Stanley moves from blaming a forgetful, Latvian great-great-grandfather (who supposedly inaugurated a curse on the Yelnats clan) for his predicament to detecting larger forces at work behind it. First of all, there’s the warden, who by forcing hole-digging on the inmates seems to be looking for more than improved character. In an explanatory series of flashbacks, we learn of Green Lake’s centuries-old history and the possibility that something other than dirt might turn up in one of the holes.
Then there’s fate, Providence, maybe even grace. Stanley finds the energy to teach one of his companions, the often silent Zero (Thomas), how to read; the two become fast friends. The innocent but often carefree Stanley is sombered a bit by Zero’s background (Stanley: “I know Liberty Park! My mom used to take me there all the time when I was a kid.” Zero: “Yeah. I lived in the playground tunnel behind the swings . . . but no biggie.”). After a genuinely suspenseful sunflower-seed-stealing episode, Stanley works up the guts to tell the truth to the corrupt warden. On a darker note, Stanley finally snaps at constant badgering from fellow hole-diggers and gets in a short-lived fight—but, needless to say, things end up happily ever after.
Of course, Sachar and Davis never forget that what they have on their hands is a kids’ movie—they keep their noses from turning up and their loyalty pledged to refreshingly real characters, each with a breathtaking individuality never compromised by conceptual outlines or forced story arches. Surprisingly, everything—including two subplots, one set in Latvia and the other in the wild west—feels tied to cause and effect, experience, and the wisdom of old age, bestowed contradictorily on teens under eighteen whose moral compasses are still a bit shaky.
If this sounds somewhat heavy-handed, never fear: Holes is also filled with wayward delights—shoe deodorizing agents, grumpy Jewish grandfathers, well-timed shovel-pummeling, stereotype-busting interracial romances, and Eartha Kitt. It’s more than enough to keep your kids entertained. But get them to watch it a second time (they’ll want to), and explain some of its elusive points about absurdity and agency in kid-friendly terms. Then see it again with a significant other or family member; a rewarding discussion might ensue. Maybe even rent it for the kids and their summer sleepover pals. And after they’re all in bed, pop it in the VCR one last time and marvel.