No 'Holes' in this kids' movie

by Rebecca Leffler | 5/9/03 5:00am

As I settled into my seat and tried to block the screams and cries of excitement from next door's screening of the new "X-Men" flick, I thought to myself, "What am I getting into?"

The film opens with a shot of a huge pile of dirt and the first line is -- and I quote -- "Barfbag! Barfbag!" This turns out to be a character's name. Some of the others include Armpit, Squid and X-Ray, and the plot of the film seems to be boys digging holes -- how exciting!

Yet, surprisingly, director Andrew Davis' "Holes" turned out to be one of the best movies of the year so far. Based on Louis Sachar's 1998 hit young-adult novel, the film blends humor, drama and adventure to produce a children's tale that doesn't treat children like, well, children and appeals to viewers of any age.

This tumultuous tale begins with Stanley Yelnats (yes, his name is a palindrome, and it has been in the family for four generations), an affable but unlucky teen who is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of sneakers, then shipped off to Camp Greenlake to serve his sentence.

Camp Greenlake is anything but green, and there are no lakes for miles. The young inmates are forced to dig holes in the desert under the scorching Texas sun all day and are kept under the watchful and sinister eyes of Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson) and the Warden (Sigourney Weaver).

According to Mr. Sir, played flawlessly by Voight, "You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day in the hot sun and it turns him into a good boy." Though the stated goal of all this hole-digging is to "build character," the boys soon discover that the Warden is using them to find some mysterious treasure buried somewhere in the desert.

As the events at Camp Greenlake unfold, Stanley (Shia LaBeouf) gradually earns the respect of his fellow hole-diggers. One subplot explains the Yelnats family curse. The other features the legend of Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), a 19th-century "kissing bandit" who left lipstick marks on all her victims.

Add in a few lizards, some peaches, onions and shovels (you'll see) and you have the recipe for a sus-pensefully entertaining yet morally solid film. In Louis Sachar's popular book, there's not just one bad guy, one hero and one adventure. Instead, substantial themes like racism, greed and submission to authority hide among the inventive plot twists and aesthetic visual images.

Though we are made to dislike Mr. Sir, we never truly fear him. The film does a wonderful job of not scaring children Disney-style, while at the same time providing morally corrupt characters who feed the narrative.

"Holes" entertained me, but it also made me think. In fact, I couldn't help but notice the parallels to the Jewish experience during World War II. Think about it: A boy is accused of a crime he did not commit, shipped off to a "camp" and forced to do manual labor each day. Dr. Pendanski and Dr. Sir obey the Warden's orders no matter what she says, mimicking the blind submission to authority that characterized the Nazis under Hitler's rule. And the interracial romance that catalyzes one of the many subplots serves as a subtle lesson in tolerance for both the young and older viewer.

Yes, this movie is about children, but they're children with real problems: worrying about being homeless and surviving on the streets, rather than worrying about bad hair days or late prom dates. Khleo Thomas gives a tear-jerking performance as a quiet, homeless boy named Zero who becomes an unexpected hero.

"Holes" is disguised as a kids' movie, but it's a moving and entertaining joy ride through the generations that features talented actors (and not just the big-name ones like Weaver, Voight and Arquette, but also incredible performances by newcomers LeBoeuf and Thomas) and a script with virtually no, um, holes. In the desert of typical, morally void kiddie fare, "Holes" is a real oasis.