Holes (review)

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Hole in One

I’d never even heard of this book Holes, and here’s one 10-year-old acquaintance of mine excited about the prospect of a film version and jealous that I’d get to see the movie days in advance of its opening. Here’s kids at the screening applauding in anticipation when the lights go down. These kids today, with their reading and their books… geez. While all my contemporaries are gonna be next door at the multiplex watching that Dude, Where’s My Car dude and Chow Yun-Fat beating the kung-fu crap out of Nazis — not that there’s anything wrong with that, and hey, it’s based on a comic book, and comic books have words in them — every cool 8- to 12-year-old will be watching an adaptation of a book they love so much that they can cheer just before all the cheerable moments onscreen, because they’ve got the story memorized.

The kids today are reading. Where did we go wrong? I blame J.K. Rowling.

And this ain’t no See Dick Run story, neither. It’s bitingly ironic and casts a cold, contemptuous eye on things like hypocrisy and racism and cruelty, and the unknown kid actors are terrific and the adult cast — pretty big names, all of them — are having a blast, and you know, you could sneak in without a kid and still have a good time even if you haven’t read the book and had never even heard of it and have to slink down in your seat feeling really old and out of touch with what the kids are into today.

Reading was fairly uncool when I was a kid, though, and maybe it still is with the kids today, cuz the hero here is Stanley Yelnats IV, who is exactly the kind of uncool, misunderstood dork who would be a reader, wouldn’t he, and so his inevitable triumph is a vindication for all the uncool and misunderstood readers (or watchers) who identify with him. (Onscreen, Stanley is played by the lovely Shia LaBeouf, who is a real kid and not some buff, pretty-boy 27-year-old model slash actor pretending to still be a high schooler. I hate when movies do that.) That Stanley is unjustly convicted of a crime he did not commit should come as no surprise — the unjustness of it, that is, for he’s so sweet a kid that he thanks the driver of the yellow school bus turned prison transport for the ride to hell on Earth: Camp Green Lake. But it’s not green and there’s no lake, just miles of endless, waterless Texas desert in every direction, where the juvenile-delinquent inmates must dig a 5-foot by 5-foot hole every day. To build character, they’re told, which sounds about as likely as most other ventures that are supposed to build character and end up just being nasty jobs that no one else wants to do and here’s some convenient slave labor to do it.

All the kids here have names like Armpit and X-Ray and Zig-Zag, and they forge their own little Lord of the Flies culture, and none of them are as bad as the grownups in charge would have them believe about themselves. But The Warden (Sigourney Weaver: Company Man, Galaxy Quest), Mr. Sir (Jon Voight: Tomb Raider, Pearl Harbor), and Mr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson: Minority Report, The Good Girl) are clearly up to No Good, and a primary pleasure for no-kid-with moviegoing grownups is watching the three of them eat up the chance to make these characters every bit as deliciously despicable as they should be. Oh, and they and the kids’ experience with them are a bittersweet reminder of that eye-opening moment that, if we’re lucky as kids, comes late in childhood: that not all grownups have a kid’s best interest in mind, and that not all of them can be trusted or should be respected.

Holes is laden with heavy stuff like this — the growing up that comes with figuring out when adults should be defied; the true character building that comes with figuring out that teamwork actually works — but it’s never shoveled like so much desert sand in our faces, and it’s all wrapped in multiple adventure stories that’ll tickle adults and kids alike. And even those intertwining tales — of a lady bandit of the Old West who once walked these very acres; of a hex lain on Stanley’s great-great-grandfather by a gypsy in the old country — never shy away from hard issues, from honoring promises to confronting bigotry, and director Andrew Davis (A Perfect Murder) and screenwriter Louis Sachar (adapting his own novel) never talk down to their young audience. There’s nothing preachy here, and nothing easy. And that’s what makes Holes so wonderful.

That and how love and kindness and decency win out over meanness and small-mindedness, and curses are lifted and hearts are won over and treasures of all measures are discovered. Ya’d have to be made of stone not to get a kick out of that.

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