Mark Reviews Movies


Director: Andrew Davis

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson, Brenden Jefferson, Byron Cotton, Patricia Arquette, Dule Hill, Jake M. Smith, Miguel Castro, Max Kasch, Henry Winkler, Eartha Kitt

MPAA Rating: PG (for violence, mild language and some thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 4/18/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Holes takes place at a labor camp for juvenile delinquents where the moderators—and apparently the judges in the cases against the campers—are convinced that digging a five-by-five hole every day builds character and consequently deters the kids from returning to a life of mischief. These kinds of programs have always left me suspicious, and their popularity seems to be on the rise as of late, thanks to annoying daytime talk show personalities who send troubled youths off to boot camp where they are physically exhausted and psychologically tortured. Thankfully, late-night news programs have helped to uncover the crueler of the bunch, but I still wonder if this phenomenon isn't a reflection of the larger problems with our criminal justice system, where reformation takes too long and costs tax payers too much—at least here and now. The long-term benefits, of course, would far outweigh these comparatively minor inconveniences, but I'm starting to realize that's neither here nor there in regards to a discussion about Holes, an entertaining and fanciful prison movie for kids.

Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) continues a tradition started with his great-grandfather, in which the men in the Yelnats family are named Stanley because it's a palindrome. He's also continuing the tradition of a family curse, started five generations ago by the first Yelnats to come to the States. You see, he enlisted the help of a psychic to win the affections of a rather stupid girl and failed to hold up his end of the bargain. The curse has followed the male Yelnats ever since, and it's hit young Stanley rather hard. Walking down the street one day, a pair of tennis shoes falls, seemingly from the sky, and hit him in the head. He takes them and is subsequently arrested for stealing the shoes. The judge gives him a choice: jail or Camp Green Lake. Camp is the obvious choice, but this place is run by some weird folks. There's Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), a hardnosed assistant irritated by the prospect of quitting smoking, and Mr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), a counselor with little influence over the campers. The whole facility is run by The Warden (Sigourney Weaver), who gives any boy that finds something while digging the day off.

The simple setup opens up into a story of a surprising level of depth. Based on the 1998 book by Louis Sachar (who also wrote the screenplay), the film weaves the story of Stanley's adventures at camp with two interconnected tales from out of the past. First is the recounting of the Yelnats curse, which is somehow linked to the sad and tragic tale of the infamous outlaw "Kissin' Kate" Barlow (Patricia Arquette) and an African-American onion farmer named Sam (Dule Hill) during a time of intolerance. So what does all of this have to do with digging holes? What is The Warden looking for? And what's up with the deadly yellow-spotted lizards that populate the area around camp? Sachar's imaginative mystery is entertaining on its own, but he's wise to tackle social issues like bigotry, psychological issues like the overwhelming nature of greed, and even metaphysical issues like predestination. He does it quite slyly, too. There's a lot for kids to think about and learn from after all is said and done, and it's sure to be an appropriate starting ground for a dialogue between kids and their parents. And even for those too old to have a learning experience with the film, there's plenty to appreciate on a thematic level.

Through it all, Sachar and director Andrew Davis manage to keep a keen eye on their characters and relationships. The large majority of them are caricatures, and the adult actors play them with verve. Jon Voight, as is typical, stands out among them, leaving little to no scenery unchewed in his wake. The campers are, more or less, defined by their nicknames. We have X-Ray (Brenden Jefferson), the unofficial leader, named as such for his glasses, Armpit (Byron Cotton), a kid who threatens to punish all the residents of his tent when his week's shower privileges are rebuffed, and others with names like Squid, Zig-Zag, and Magnet (Jake M. Smith, Max Kasch, and Miguel Castro). Stanley is an outsider to this group, but as he grows more accustomed to his surroundings, he's dubbed Caveman. Sachar has a perceptive view of the way boys interact. The observations make up the heart of the film, particularly the relationship between Stanley and the camp's perpetual outcast Zero (Khleo Thomas). Not even the staff pretends to have any kind of liking for Zero (he's the only one Pendanski calls by his nickname). The way the two boys slowly grow to depend on one another is quite touching.

It also provides Holes with its central argument against such programs and the mindset that helped create and popularize them. Having a person go out an dig a hole every day will certainly provide punishment, but what happens after that? What happens when the individual returns to the real world? The only experience he or she has gained is burrowing. Stanley has the right idea in teaching Zero to read and eventually taking to him as family. Reformation is not solely about helping an individual to better him or herself or giving him or her a second chance; it's a combination of the two.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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