Adapted for the screen by Louis Sachar from his Newberry Prize-winning young-adult novel, Holes is the story of an unlucky boy from an unlucky family. Early teen Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) -- his first name is his last name spelled backwards -- hails from a Latvian-American family living under a 100-year curse. Stanley's goofy inventor dad (Henry Winkler) has unsuccessfully devoted his life to finding the cure for foot odor. In a consistent theme of misfortune, Stanley is walking home from school one day when he's conked on the head by a flying pair of baseball shoes, and before he can quite figure out what's happened he's been arrested. Seems the cleats were stolen from an orphanage to which they had been donated by a major-league star (Rick Fox).
Though guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Stanley is sentenced to the ironically monikered Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center located on a stretch of Texas real estate about as arid and dusty as a comparable swath of land on the moon. Camp Green Lake is administered by Warden Walker (Sigourney Weaver), a leggy beauty whose looks perhaps obscure her heart of pure cobalt; Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), the irascible overseer with a squashed face and a greasy pompadour the height of Mount Whitney; and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), the bromide-spouting camp psychologist whose gentle manner and broad smile mask a nasty streak as wide as Nebraska. The inmates at Camp Green Lake have one repetitive job to do. Each day, each boy trudges to the middle of a vast dry basin and digs one round hole, 5-feet deep, 5-feet in diameter. If he finds anything in his hole other than dirt, rattlesnakes or poisonous lizards, he might be eligible for a day-long furlough.
Against this contemporary narrative, the filmmakers tell two other stories in flashback. In 19th century Latvia, we see how Stanley's good-hearted great-grandfather saddled his family with a soothsayer's curse. And in the early 20th century Wild West, we meet blond, pulchritudinous "Kissin'" Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), a one-time school marm who turned to outlawin' after her onion-growing black handyman (Dulé Hill) was murdered by a gang of white thugs. Though it takes us a while to unravel how, Stanley's fate at Camp Green Lake will very much be linked to both these older stories.
Davis and Sachar get a lot right in this film. First and foremost, they avoid heavy-handed moralizing. Stanley has to undergo the expected hazing by his fellow inmates, a cast of lost boys who know each other only by their nicknames: X-Ray, Armpit, Zig-Zag, Barfbag and Twitch. Stanley has to learn to stand up for himself. And eventually, he has to learn when and how to stand up for others. This latter action is manifested in his relationship with Zero (Khleo Thomas), the smallest, quietest boy in camp. But the film doesn't make ridiculous bullies of any of the boys and doesn't resort to some contrived showdown by which Stanley might display the coming of his manhood. Instead, the film settles for far wiser gestures of an extended helping hand, a whispered word of encouragement, one boy helping another with his reading skills.
Moreover, rather than resorting to caricature, particularly among the picture's villains, the filmmakers have allowed its adult actors to play their roles straight, and as a result, Weaver, Voight and Nelson deliver performances that segue very nicely from the comedic to the truly sinister. Only at the overly neat ending does this pattern break. The child performers, meanwhile, exhibit perfect pitch, not a false note of cute in the whole cast. I am also impressed with the subtle way this picture handles the explosive issue of race. Kate's boyfriend might be murdered because he's black, but what's underscored is not that he was black, but that she loved him and that he was deserving of her love. Comparably, the interracial friendship between Stanley and Zero is executed in such a way that what is never spoken speaks to us with a clarity that something shouted might never achieve.