'Holes'

CrimeCrime, Law and JusticeEntertainmentMoviesTheftPatricia Arquette

His Nobel Prize for literature notwithstanding, Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer was passionate about the satisfactions of writing for young people. Children, he once explained, will not read something just because the New York Times tell them to. Children will read only something they like.

Though it's received just about every accolade authority figures have on offer, including the Newbery Medal, Louis Sachar's young adult novel "Holes" has become a literary phenomenon because of how fervently its target audience has embraced it. It's now been turned into a movie with the younger crowd in mind, but older adults savvy enough to disregard labels will find it surprisingly rewarding.

Working from a screenplay by Sachar himself, director Andrew Davis, best known for "The Fugitive," has come up with a sweetly entertaining fable about strange doings in a juvenile correction facility in Texas that switches tones between the comic and the menacing. It's a difficult but finally satisfying balancing act that succeeds, despite a few hiccups, because Sachar's presence ensured a fidelity to two of the keys to the book's success.

One is that "Holes," as opposed to many films about young people, neither preaches nor panders. Shrewdly cast with kids who look like kids and are naturalistic performers into the bargain, it treats its teenage protagonists with complete seriousness, reserving its comic moments for those who look silliest to young adult eyes, the grown-ups.

"Holes" also sticks closely to the book's satisfyingly complex and incident-filled plot. A parable about curses laid and undone, about how everyone has the power to make his or her own destiny, it blends three stories that take place in Europe and America in this century and the last. And it finds room to include exotic fortunetellers, Old West bandits, a forbidden interracial romance featuring "West Wing's" Dulé Hill, the curative powers of onions and the dangers of Texas yellow-spotted lizards. Among other things.

It starts simply, with a pair of stolen shoes, shoes that belonged to Clyde "Sweetfeet" Livingston (the Lakers' Rick Fox), the fastest man in baseball. They drop from the sky and fall on the head of young Stanley Yelnats IV just in time for him to get arrested for theft.

Stanley (Shia LaBeouf), considerably slimmed down from his overweight book self, is a boy who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, something he attributes to a curse that began with his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." It seems Stanley's ancestor made a bargain back in Latvia with an Egyptian fortuneteller named Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt, of all people) and then neglected to live up to it. Bad idea.

Over in America, the first Stanley Yelnats (so named by his palindrome-loving mother), finds the curse also extends to him, as his fortune is stolen by the notorious outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette). Every Stanley Yelnats since has been similarly burdened, including the current Stanley's mad inventor father (Henry Winkler), desperately seeking his fortune via a cure for foot odor, and his irascible grandfather (Nathan Davis, the director's own grandfather).

With all this and more as gradually revealed backdrop, Stanley finds himself sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake, a facility that is said to help troubled youth build character. When Stanley gets there, he finds no lake and nothing green, only a trio of sinister adults with a very different agenda for their charges.

There is Mr. Sir, a paunchy Texas-tough law enforcement officer with a pencil-thin mustache, a receding Elvis pompadour and the kind of almost-over-the-top conviction that's become Jon Voight's habitual MO.

There's Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), a preternaturally cheerful counselor whose weakness for bromides like "it should be no labor to be nice to your neighbor" leads the kids to call him Mom. And then there is the Warden (Sigourney Weaver), so tough she uses rattlesnake venom for nail polish. Really.

Under the supervision of these three, the kids at Camp Green Lake have to dig holes. A lot of holes: one 5-foot-by-5-foot cavity per boy per day. The adults say its for building character, that digging holes will turn a bad boy good, but it soon becomes clear they are looking for something, though what it could possibly be in the middle of the desert no one knows.

Initially, Stanley is interested only in surviving a situation that seems genuinely menacing, in part because the other kids, who go by nicknames like Armpit, Zig-Zag and X-Ray, are not particularly welcoming. Only the enigmatic, noncommunicative Zero (Khleo Thomas) doesn't seem to have it in for him.

"Holes" departs somewhat from the book in having its adults walk a line, being comic as well as edgy. Voight, Weaver and Nelson manage that nicely, though enlarging Stanley's father and grandfather into strictly comic relief characters is an unnecessary and less successful change.

"Holes" is successful finally for the most old-fashioned of reasons: It's got an involving, adventurous story to tell and the wherewithal to tell it correctly. And while young adults may think this is intended only for them, in truth it's their elders who are especially starved for this kind of entertainment.

'Holes'

MPAA rating: PG, for violence, mild language, and some thematic elements

Times guidelines: Some scary lizards and a few frightening scenes that may be too intense for very young children.

Sigourney Weaver ... The Warden
Jon Voight ... Mr. Sir
Patricia Arquette ... Kate Barlow
Tim Blake Nelson ... Dr. Pendanski
Dulé Hill ... Sam
Shia LaBeouf ... Stanley Yelnats

In association with Walden Media, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Andrew Davis. Producers Mike Medavoy, Andrew Davis, Teresa Tucker-Davies, Lowell Blank. Executive producers Marty Ewing, Louis Phillips. Screenplay Louis Sachar, based on his novel. Cinematographer Stephen St. John. Editors Tom Nordberg, Jeffrey Wolf. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Joel McNeely. Production design Maher Ahmad. Art director Austin Gorg. Set decorator Gene Serdena. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

In general release.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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