Its not often one sees a movie that really seems to understand what its like to be a kid. Too often, children are portrayed as precocious twenty-somethings trapped in the bodies of fifth graders: children whose wisdom and goodness would make Socrates look like Homer Simpson. (For further study see Jerry Maguire and Contact). On the other hand, movies made for the ten and under crowd often take place in a world free from violence and pain, where the worst thing that could happen to a kid is a stolen bike or a serious grounding. Holes makes neither of these mistakes. The kids and teens are just as dumb as I was, and the world they live in, while not being seriously naturalistic, is, at least, properly serious.
The movie gets going as Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is mistakenly accused of stealing a pair of valuable shoes, and is sent to a boy's correctional facility. Except, this juvenile camp feels like Boy's Town if it was run by the guards from The Shawshank Redemption. There Stanley is indoctrinated by the gruff Mr. Sir (John Voight with crazy hair and a brilliant performance).
The only activity this camp provides for these wayward youth is digging holes. The camp's philosophy on this matter is `You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day, and it turns him into a good boy.' Whether or not this theory works is doubtful, because Stanley soon experiences many cruelties and humiliations at the hands of his fellow reprobates. Don't let the cutesy nicknames fool you (X-Ray, Zig Zag, Armpit, Zero), these kids are just like your friends in the sixth grade, or to quote Rushmore, `With friends like you who needs friends?' Not that the other campers are as bad as all that, nor does the movie focus on the cruelties of youth. The kids come around, but never completely, and the movie (like Stanley himself) doesn't worry about them too much. Both of them have bigger things on their mind.
The story of Holes switches back and forth between the present and the past. Like the palindromic name Stanley Yelnats it begins at opposite ends chronologically and works toward the center. Where the end of the past story and the beginning of the present story are explained. The transitions are gentle enough that the viewer does not feel jerked around too much. Even though the transitions are entirely organic, I can excuse the random transitions because, like I said earlier. The filmmakers actually have something on their mind. They really do have a story to tell. Furthermore, Louis Sachar, the writer of the book and the screenplay seems to have gotten the tone just right for a movie for kids - just enough silliness and just enough bitterness. Stanley's father job is unreal (he is seeking to find the cure for foot odor), but Stanley's emotions are very real. As someone in the movie says (see the movie to find out why), `Peaches and Onions! That's the secret.' Holes isn't the most brilliant movie of the year, but it is funny without being offensive, and sweet without being maudlin. Most of all, it goes further in capturing what it is like to be young without portraying it as too horrible or too saccharine. The bitter and the sweet together is the secret of Holes' success.
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