In the midst of Harry Potter-mania, an unassuming novel slipped under the radar and into the collective consciousness of teen America, creating a near overnight sensation. While on the surface it wasn't quite clear what drew millions of kids to this story, the fervor captured the attention of Hollywood, and a film adaptation was underway before you could say "yellow spotted lizards." Nine times out of ten, hot properties rushed into production wind up falling flat on their faces. Yet, this was something different. The beloved magic of the book became brand new magic on the screen. Two hours at Camp Green Lake is one sentence you won't mind serving.
Facts of the Case
Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LeBeouf, The Battle of Shaker Heights) is a kid we all know. Fumbling for words, stumbling through life, he is the last one picked to play softball and the first one to get pushed down the stairs. His family has him believing they are all cursed, thanks to a promise his great-great-grandfather neglected to fulfill for an old gypsy woman (Eartha Kitt, The Emperor's New Groove). So, it's not surprising that Stanley gets arrested for stealing an all-star athlete's shoes, when they fall from the sky and land on his head. Now it's off to Camp Green Lake for 18 months of rehabilitation with other troubled youth. This wonderland, owned and operated by the elusive Warden (Sigourney Weaver), the maniacal Mr. Sir (John Voight, Midnight Cowboy), and the eccentric Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), purports to teach these boys to be better men by digging holes through the scenic nothingness of the Texas outback. True to form, the new kid disrupts the status quo, igniting a chain of events that unravels more than 150 years of history, myth, and legend in both spectacular and heartbreaking fashion.
Films that juggle and interweave storylines across time can be tricky business. To keep your audience engaged and on track requires a master storyteller and skilled hand behind the camera. Quentin Tarantino did it with Pulp Fiction, Christopher Nolan did it with Memento, and director Andy Davis (The Fugitive) and screenwriter Louis Sachar have done it here.
I once saw a performance artist use an adapted version of Jackson Pollock's splatter paint technique live on stage. While working to tunes by John Lennon, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix, he seemingly tossed gallons of vibrant paints against three separate canvases, like a man possessed. When the music stopped, he turned each canvas upside down to reveal three amazingly accurate portraits of Lennon, Morrison, and Hendrix. Davis and Sachar have done something similar, weaving three disparate melodies—The Yelnats Family curse, Kissing Kate Barlow, and Camp Green Lake—across time and space, only to have them collide in a symphony of karmic convergence, with good triumphing over evil, boys becoming men, and individuals understanding and accepting their true purpose in life.
While the storytelling is exceptional, the performances are the glue that holds everything together. I don't know if you are familiar with the award-winning Disney Channel series Even Stevens—I am, only because certain members of my family (who shall remain nameless) are fans—but Shia LeBeouf is an absolute nut, and I mean that in a good way. The most important thing an actor can bring to a role is commitment, body and soul. Shia not only possesses this fearless quality, but also embraces it. At no point in this film will anyone question the authenticity of Stanley Yelnats IV. While this character isn't far from his portrayal of Louis Stevens, it is no less compelling.
Shia does not carry this film alone, for the triad of storylines demands several more critical performances. With his portrayal of Mr. Sir, Jon Voight gives a master class in character study. Going above and beyond the call of duty, Voight's performance is so off-the-wall you can't help but be drawn to it. The same holds true for Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. Pendanski. Not having seen the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I was not familiar with Nelson's work. You may not be either, but after this you'll want to seek out those other films. On the other hand, we all know the range and caliber of talent possessed by Sigourney Weaver. In her performance as The Warden, Weaver skillfully utilizes sexually charged intimidation to disorient all the males at Camp Green Lake, while playing her true hand close to the vest in anticipation of the perfect opportunity to make her move.
This triumvirate of evil represents the oppressive discrimination, totalitarianism, and injustice most teenagers feel growing up. While the majority of Camp Green Lake residents have resigned themselves to this fate and adopted a Lord of the Flies mentality, Stanley is the catalyst that throws this well ordered system into complete and utter chaos. In partnership with the strong, silent Zero—played to perfection by young Khleo Thomas (Friday After Next)—Stanley ignites an anarchistic revolt that brings down everything the staff and residents of Camp Green Lake had come to know.
Surprisingly, these performances only tell one third of the tale. In the story's more recent past, Dulé Hill (The West Wing) and Patricia Arquette (Ed Wood) provide the film's love story, a forbidden relationship that angers the townsfolk and drives the schoolmarm, Ms. Katherine, to a life of criminal vengeance. [Sadly, actor Scott Plank (A Chorus Line), the target of Kissing Kate's aggression, passed away shortly after the film had wrapped.] In the story's far past, we are treated to a screwball retelling of the Yelnats family curse, punctuated by a brilliant turn from the ever-engaging Eartha Kitt.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the brief but entertaining performances of Henry Winkler (The Waterboy), Siobhan Fallon (Saturday Night Live), and Nate Davis (yes, the director's father) as Stanley's family. They and Kitt are the icing on an already magnificently presented dessert.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is magnificent. The colors and imagery so effectively capture the heat, sweat, and grime of Camp Green Lake that you'll be reaching to turn on the air conditioner before the credits roll. Further enhancing your viewing pleasure, there is no evidence of digital tampering or interference to distract you. The picture is given even greater depth by a 5.1 Dolby surround track and a mesmerizing score by underappreciated composer Joel McNeely (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). I'll admit there were untapped opportunities for more diverse directional effects, but one really can't complain. The same holds true for the bonus materials. Two feature commentaries provide a wealth of production insight (Davis and Sachar) and teen exuberance (Shia, Khleo, Jake, and Max), as do two behind-the-scenes featurettes—Boys of D Tent (11 minutes), Digging the First Hole (9 minutes)—and a brief gag reel (2 minutes). Six deleted scenes are just that and do little to add to the film, while the overall package is capped with a cast music video ("Dig It") and a trunk full of Disney studio trailers.
Credit the entire cast and crew of Holes for a job well done. Whether or not you are a fan of the book, this is one film the entire family is sure to enjoy. At $26.99, don't hesitate to add it to your collection.
All charges against Holes are summarily dismissed. Everyone involved is hereby remanded to a more tropical climate for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. This court is adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Production Commentary
Review content copyright © 2004 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.