Race and Redemption in a Holes -some Family Film
Based on Louis Sachar's bestselling novel for young readers, the new movie Holes brings to life the adventures of Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled teen whose palindrome name is not the only thing that makes him unique.
Stanley is the son of an oddball visionary (Henry Winkler) determined to discover the cure for foot odor. The cure has proven elusive, but that is par for the course. The Yelnats are the latest generation to suffer under a long-running "family curse" that prevents them from succeeding at anything. Thus there is a strange irony in the fact that the family's latest misfortune—Stanley's arrest and conviction—involves a stolen pair of shoes.
Although innocent, Stanley is sentenced to 18 months at a reform camp in the desert. There, he joins a crowd of unruly youngsters in the unpleasant business of digging holes under the supervision of a cruel taskmaster (Jon Voight), a counselor with a mean streak (Tim Blake Nelson), and a mysterious warden (Sigourney Weaver). During his trials he befriends another laborer, "Zero" (Khleo Thomas), and the two help each other through trials, a desperate unplanned escape, and a mystery that involves stories of their ancestors.
Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) has taken Sachar's Newberry and National Book Award-winning story and transformed it into one of the most complex, challenging, and entertaining films for young audiences we have seen in years.
Watching it, I was reminded of such audience favorites as October Sky, The Princess Bride, and Stand by Me. It moves through a variety of different tones, from the Willy Wonka quirkiness of Stanley's family, to the fairy-tale adventures in the Old West flashbacks, to the heartfelt exchanges between Stanley and Zero during their dusty ordeals. Missing is the cheap sentimentality of those formulaic Disney after-school-specials. The film earns its emotional resolutions (even if there are perhaps one or two too many of them.) And while the boys behave like boys—rough, rowdy, and a little rude—Holes does not depend on cheap locker-room humor for laughs.
I spoke with the director this week about why Holes is such a rare and wonderful exception to the rule—a movie that rewards all ages. He explained that the secret lies in the story's source material, and in Sachar's insistence on "not talking down to the kids."
"Kids are whole people," says Davis. "They need to be addressed as caring human beings. Louis's talent as a writer is that he understands how to get into the inner feelings of kids. Most kids feel fairly insecure about themselves. They want to feel like they are a part of something. What happens in the story is that kids who were feeling left out find each other and help bring the whole group of kids to be more understanding of each other."
Sachar had more than just the experiences of young readers in mind, and that is why grownups enjoy the book—and the movie—alongside their kids. "They're provocative stories," Davis explains. "Holes has a tremendous amount of hope and character arc. It deals with some real issues … with some history, with who we are as people and where we come from."
It seems strange that such rewarding all-ages entertainment is so rare on the big screen. Perhaps directors should keep a closer eye on children's literature. Davis remarks: "Holes probably would have not been made if it was just a screenplay. It was the fact that there was this book that had been embraced by these kids [that] allowed it to get made. The book was the star. It works for kids from 8 to 15. Younger kids love to see [stories involving] older kids. Because of the historical layers of the story, you're reaching those a little older. You've got the issue of the family, which can reach grandparents. There's something for everybody."