Chock full of worthy actors, crammed with praiseworthy lessons for the young, and possessing a reasonably broad emotional range, "Holes" is a film for young people that deserves attention by their elders.
At times charming, at times scary (Not BOO! scary, threatening, potentially-violent-adult scary.), and at times exhibiting precisely the sort of social awareness that drives conservatives crazy (attend to Georgia's current flag controversy), "Holes" is a film that will grab you and enrich you.
Employing Louis Sachar's novel (he also wrote the screenplay) director Andrew Davis presents a story of several generations of several families whose destinies are inextricably entwined.
It is always a treat to witness disparate stories manipulated with the sort of deftness that allows them to coalesce seamlessly at a film's conclusion.
Four generations ago Stanley Yelnats I, bereft of love, forgets to honor a mystic's admonition and brings a curse upon himself and all the male members of his family that follow.
Ne'er-do-wells one and all, we first encounter young Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) and his father, Stanley Yelnats III (Henry Winkler). III has dedicated his life to inventing a product that keeps gym shoes from stinking; things are not going well.
Though this seems (and is) juvenile, Winkler is so charming as the bumbling, loving father that this facet of the plot is subsumed by his performance.
Through no fault of his own Stanley IV, a decent sort, is wrongly accused of gleeping a pair of sneakers donated to a shelter for the homeless by a star athlete (played by the photogenic Rick Fox of the L.A. Lakers).
So he's sent to one of those "Boot Camp" penal institutions, Camp Green Lake, where the young are abused at the pleasure of the sadists in charge. As opposed to real life, the film handles this environment with a delicate, amusing touch.
To our good fortune Jon Voight gets to play the mean guy, Mr. Sir. While fans of the actor will delight in the character he creates (especially in concert with his hairpiece) any hope that Voight would achieve the delirious heights he scaled in "Anaconda" remains unrequited.
Assisting Mr. Sir in the camp's mission to turn bad boys into good is the camp's counselor, Mr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson). Like the difference between Voight's performances in "Anaconda" and "Holes," fans of Nelson's terrific performance as Delmar O'Donnell in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" can only contemplate what he might have done with Pendanski given the opportunity.
Understandably, such excesses would have overpowered the essentially laudable performances by the younger members of the cast. The director was correct in keeping these potentially overwhelming actors slightly restrained.
Though both Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski are ostensibly in charge there is one even they fear: The Warden Walker(Sigourney Weaver). This chick's so mean she puts rattlesnake venom in her nail polish. (Like I said, not BOO! scary, threatening, potentially violent-adult scary.)
Rather than giving away plot details, suffice it to say there is a connection between Warden Walker and the bandit Katherine "Kissin' Kate" Barlow (Patricia Arquette) who rode roughshod over this territory approximately 100 years prior to the present day. This is one of those intertwining plots of which I spoke.
This aspect of the film features a lovely pastoral story of a good person, Sam, the Onion Man (Dul? Hill Charlie on "West Wing"), his evolving relationship with Katherine, and the racism simmering just below the surface in Texas.
As I said, much that happened in the past is directly related to present events. It is sufficient to know that at Camp Green Lake the warden has her charges spend every minute of every day digging holes in what is now a dry lake bed.
One of the film's numerous moral lessons is contained in a subtle subplot concerning how water, the source of life, is denied this region in which a particularly dastardly deed was perpetrated. (No doubt those who scorn Hollywood liberalism detest the recapitulation of such themes.)
At Camp Green Lake Stanley IV meets any number of quasi criminals of similar age and through this aspect of the story we enjoy evocations of bonding, injustice, irrational aggression, dominance and passivity, reciprocity, and loyalty.
The kid behind me, a lad of 10 or 12, was vocalizing his appreciation of precisely those lessons intended to be imparted by the author and director. What more could the creator's ask?
It is in this subplot that we meet Zero (Khleo Thomas), a charismatic young actor, and through his relationship with IV, any number of additional moral lessons are introduced. Thomas is good in a limited way; LaBeouf is noticeably talented and deserves the attention of those responsible for casting films of substance.
"Holes" is a really good comedy/adventure movie for kids under the age of 15, and parents should find some excuse to tag along.
Celluloid memories: Andrew Davis has directed some terrific guy flicks over the years (I'm leaving out "The Fugitive" because everyone's seen it twice.) "The Package" (1989) is a real gem that few have seen in its unedited entirety. Possessing an atomic cast, it features Gene Hackman, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, Pam Grier, and Joanna Cassidy. It's got spies, political assassinations, international intrigue, harrowing escapes, and black-hearted amoral rogues run amok. "Under Seige" (1992) proves that with the right direction Steven Seagal can make a good film. What makes it a great guy flick is the addition of Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, Erika Eleniak, Colm Meaney, and Nick Mancuso. This may be Tommy Lee's greatest performance and Busey, hardly a shrinking violet himself, lets it all hang out. Alas, the DVD version I've seen took the pan-and-scanned edition and stretched it back out to fill a wide screen.