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'Holes' shovels some gritty action for kids

Friday, April 18, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

What I really dig about "Holes" is that the movie doesn't talk down to the kids who will comprise its target audience -- so much so that it surprised this adult by how sharply it cuts into the skin of malevolence.


RATING: PG for violence, mild language and some thematic elements.

STARRING: Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Shia LeBeouf, Patricia Arquette.

DIRECTOR: Andrew Davis.

WEB SITE: disneypictures/holes.html


Local movie showtimes


"Holes" is based on a popular award-winning children's novel by Louis Sachar, who adapted the screenplay. On the surface, it tells how unlucky Stanley Yelnats IV (newcomer Shia LeBeouf), latest heir to an ancient family curse, is falsely accused of stealing a pair of celebrity sneakers and is sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake, located in the middle of a Texas desert.

The juvenile inmates spend their days in the hot sun digging holes in the ground at the order of the camp warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her overseer, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight). Obviously, they are looking for something, but what?

The answer unfolds at a leisurely pace through a series of flashbacks that detail not only the origin of the Yelnats family curse but also the blight that dried up Green Lake and turned it from paradise to hellhole. We discover the significance of a Wild West bandit named Kissing Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette) and watch an interracial romance develop, knowing that an ill wind seems certain to disrupt it.

The tone of the movie seems to change with the scenery. At Stanley's home, the mood is messily eccentric, like his father (Henry Winkler), who is trying to invent a cure for foot odor, much to the dismay of his neighbors. A flashback showing the origin of the curse (ancestor Elya is played by Damien Luvara, who hails from Pittsburgh) features mud, pigs and deliberately bad Old World accents. The Western flashbacks contain a sweet, sad poignance.

At Green Lake, Voight gets into the camp spirit with his portrayal of Mr. Sir, a squinty-eyed cuss with a pompadour and a penchant for shooting yellow-spotted lizards in the middle of the night.

It is left to Stanley and the other unfortunate hole-diggers to anchor the movie in some semblance of reality. Sachar and director Andrew Davis (best known for "The Fugitive" but also responsible for Ah-nudd's "Collateral Damage") seem to understand the code: The new kid starts at the end of the line. You don't squeal. You have to earn respect (and know you have it when you get a nickname). You fight your own battles against bullies. You learn when discretion is the better part of valor.

Stanley becomes the one person whom the smallest inmate, Zero (Khleo Thomas), will talk to. He got his nickname not just because of his silence but as a measure of how others perceive his intelligence. One of those stiletto wounds the movie dishes out comes when so-called camp counselor Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson) laughs off Stanley's suggestion that Zero is smart and declares the lad will never be anything more than a moron who digs holes.

That hurts. So does Zero's response. So does the warden when she lashes out at Mr. Sir in anger, and when she suggests what they might have to do to keep their little slave-labor camp from being discovered. So does what happens when the black onion farmer (Dule Hill) gets a little too close to the white schoolmarm. So does Kissing Kate's modus operandi of leaving her lip prints on the cheek of the men she kills. The movie shows you just enough rough stuff so that you know it pulls no punches, but not so much as to overpower its intended audience.

The story of the Yelnats curse and the fate of Green Lake play out in parallel flashbacks that leave no doubt that destiny is playing out a complicated hand of cosmic payback. If it does so unevenly at times and even untidily -- well, when was life ever orderly for any length of time?

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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