In certain literary circles, the ones that meet during fourth-period study hall, Louis Sachar’s Newberry Award-winning Holes has replaced the Harry Potter series as the hip new read. No wonder, since the novel introduces readers to a gaggle of misfit teens who hide behind self-inflicted nicknames like X-Ray (for his thick eye glasses) and Armpit (for his distinctive odor) and are characterized by their rebellious attitude towards authority.
Sachar’s antihero is Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf), an affable but luckless teen who’s accused of a crime he did not commit and ordered to serve his sentence at Camp Green Lake, a Texas labor camp that’s neither green nor near any lake. Instead of archery and crafts, the inmates spend their days digging holes under the watchful eye of crusty Mr. Sir (Jon Voight). His boss, Warden Walker (Sigourney Weaver), seeks something of value under the camp and needs the boys to keep tunneling until the unidentified treasure is found.
In a recent interview, Sachar explained that when Stanley dug his first hole, he ‘wanted the reader to feel what a long, miserable experience this is.’ Apparently director Andrew Davis has the same intention for anyone enduring his drawn-out film adaptation, which plods along with the velocity of molasses and really does feel like manual labor. Kids will grasp the sweet-natured sentiments during the first half-hour. Getting them (or their parents) to sit still for the remainder is the real challenge.
Not that Holes isn’t inventive. The notion of kids digging 5′ by 5′ holes in the Earth and Davis’ accompanying visuals certainly spark our interests. But the film exhausts its creativity long before sputtering to its logical conclusion. The adults – Voight, Weaver, and a buttoned-up Tim Blake Nelson – all realize they’re playing larger than life. It’s as if they’ve predetermined that their literary shoes are too big to fill, so a Texas-sized approach to each character is required.
The teens, on the other hand, have after-school specials on the brain. Mostly, the interchangeable children engage in good-natured ribbing while achieving small-scale victories. Sweet, yes, but it only goes so far. Sooner or later, a story we all can get behind would be appreciated.
Stanley and his closest cohort, the pint-sized Zero (Khleo Thomas), form a commendable bond as the former teaches the latter how to read and write. The rest of the kids at the camp can’t remember whether they hate Stanley or not. At one point a boy named Zig-Zag (Max Kasch), who I thought was Stanley’s friend, picks a fight for no reason. When Nelson’s character spots Zig-Zag pushing poor Stanley, he encourages the boys to fistfight. Now I’m no parent, but that just seems like bad advice to feed to disgruntled teenager boys.
Davis intersperses his central narrative with historical snippets that explain the Yelnats’ 150-year-old family curse and how Green Lake dried up (we have Patricia Arquette to blame). Neither subplot is particularly interesting, though they do fill in several plot holes, pun intended. But even the most interesting segment, Stanley and Zero’s budding friendship, is eventually dulled by melodramatic music cues and the poky pace. Holes unearths a toothless tall tale for teens. If you’re looking for more than that, keep digging.
The new DVD adds deleted scenes, a gag reel, two commentary tracks (one cast, one crew), and a handful of featurettes about the making of the film. The disc offers a notably good sound mix, as well.
The story… I know it’s down there somewhere.