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Holes

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Holes
from Film Forum, 04/24/03

Based on Louis Sachar's bestselling novel for young readers, the new movie Holes brings to life the adventures of Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled teen whose palindrome name is not the only thing that makes him unique.

Stanley is the son of an oddball visionary (Henry Winkler) determined to discover the cure for foot odor. The cure has proven elusive, but that is par for the course. The Yelnats are the latest generation to suffer under a long-running "family curse" that prevents them from succeeding at anything. Thus there is a strange irony in the fact that the family's latest misfortune—Stanley's arrest and conviction—involves a stolen pair of shoes.

Although innocent, Stanley is sentenced to 18 months at a reform camp in the desert. There, he joins a crowd of unruly youngsters in the unpleasant business of digging holes under the supervision of a cruel taskmaster (Jon Voight), a counselor with a mean streak (Tim Blake Nelson), and a mysterious warden (Sigourney Weaver). During his trials he befriends another laborer, "Zero" (Khleo Thomas), and the two help each other through trials, a desperate unplanned escape, and a mystery that involves stories of their ancestors.

Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) has taken Sachar's Newberry and National Book Award-winning story and transformed it into one of the most complex, challenging, and entertaining films for young audiences we have seen in years.

Watching it, I was reminded of such audience favorites as October Sky, The Princess Bride, and Stand by Me. It moves through a variety of different tones, from the Willy Wonka quirkiness of Stanley's family, to the fairy-tale adventures in the Old West flashbacks, to the heartfelt exchanges between Stanley and Zero during their dusty ordeals. Missing is the cheap sentimentality of those formulaic Disney after-school-specials. The film earns its emotional resolutions (even if there are perhaps one or two too many of them.) And while the boys behave like boys—rough, rowdy, and a little rude—Holes does not depend on cheap locker-room humor for laughs.

I spoke with the director this week about why Holes is such a rare and wonderful exception to the rule—a movie that rewards all ages. He explained that the secret lies in the story's source material, and in Sachar's insistence on "not talking down to the kids."

"Kids are whole people," says Davis. "They need to be addressed as caring human beings. Louis's talent as a writer is that he understands how to get into the inner feelings of kids. Most kids feel fairly insecure about themselves. They want to feel like they are a part of something. What happens in the story is that kids who were feeling left out find each other and help bring the whole group of kids to be more understanding of each other."

Sachar had more than just the experiences of young readers in mind, and that is why grownups enjoy the book—and the movie—alongside their kids. "They're provocative stories," Davis explains. "Holes has a tremendous amount of hope and character arc. It deals with some real issues … with some history, with who we are as people and where we come from."

It seems strange that such rewarding all-ages entertainment is so rare on the big screen. Perhaps directors should keep a closer eye on children's literature. Davis remarks: "Holes probably would have not been made if it was just a screenplay. It was the fact that there was this book that had been embraced by these kids [that] allowed it to get made. The book was the star. It works for kids from 8 to 15. Younger kids love to see [stories involving] older kids. Because of the historical layers of the story, you're reaching those a little older. You've got the issue of the family, which can reach grandparents. There's something for everybody."

Everybody? Doesn't the film focus mainly on boys?

"It does, but, when you think about it, the story is also driven by women." He's right. Madame Zeroni, a sort of wicked witch played by Eartha Kitt, sets things in motion by cursing the Yelnats family. Kissin' Kate Barlow, given grace and guts by Patricia Arquette, becomes an outlaw when local law enforcement turns against Sam, her true love, the kindhearted handyman played by West Wing's Dule Hill. The Warden, a venomous villain played with relish by Sigourney Weaver, runs the camp. "They are strong, independent women," Davis says, "driven by different reasons."

Davis admits that he resisted some coaxing to simplify the adaptation. "There were some people when we first started financing the film who said, 'Well, we'll do the story of the camp but we won't do the story of the family.' And we said, 'That's ridiculous. That's what the book is all about!' We wanted to stay close to what Louis had done in developing the relationships between the boys. I wanted to keep some subtle things in there. We didn't lose too much—we lost a couple of things that were in the book, but we also added some things that weren't in the book. Overall, Louis and I were very happy with how it turned out. People are coming out of the theatres [glad] that it's so close to the book."

Holes tackles the issue of race relations with surprising vigor, considering its audience. It bathes its historical romance in the sort of fairy-tale glow that enveloped Princess Bride's Prince Westley and Buttercup. Davis says, "I grew up in the '60s and was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and I know how much race relations have changed in this country. The issues of race are big in the [back story of Holes], but in the current story race is not an issue. Maybe that shows where we are and where we've come from."

Davis hopes viewers will come away considering other themes and questions as well. "Because of what we are going through right now in this country—thinking about what it means to be Americans—we realize that we are all immigrants at one point or another. Everybody has come to America and struggled, whether as a pilgrim or a slave or someone who came over last week from Mexico. That's part of what makes America great—we come together and work together to make a country where people care about each other."

Holes will endure for more than just its important social themes, though. Those in the audience familiar with Scripture will catch several echoes of Bible stories, from Daniel in the lions' den to Christ's sacrifice. One character, after a particularly difficult heroic effort to save a life, walks away with vivid scars on his hands. More than once we are reminded that a hero is a person who lays down his life for his friends, and who willingly suffers the consequences for the sins of his enemies.

Along with the earnest nature of its parables, Holes is also a whole lot of fun. This week, it has tripped up some religious press critics, but held treasure for others. You will find some strikingly different opinions of the film from other religious press critics.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Several characters are one-dimensional. The feel-good ending is a crowd-pleaser that so ties up every story strand it's hard to overlook the movie's far-fetched coincidences."

Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) argues, "Holes is likely to leave viewers under eight antsy and, as was the case in the preview I attended, screaming for something more diverting."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) complains, "The movie reduces Sachar's subtle meditation to a simplistic tale. None of the book's sublimity reaches the screen. The little ones might laugh, but the adults will be bored."

I certainly was not bored—it was the most enjoyable film I've seen so far in 2003. My full review is at Looking Closer. And it seemed clear to me that the story was not meant for extremely young children. I agree with Davis that it feels right for ages 8 and up.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) did not find it simplistic at all: "Holes is a much deeper film than its … promotional campaign indicates. Unlike many book-to-film conversions, this movie maintains the book's distinction." Eaton concludes, "Parents looking for a well-crafted cinematic tale with lots to talk about afterwards will consider it a treasure trove."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "Holes is a rich, multi-layered story which adults and young adults will enjoy equally." He adds, "It is a bit of a departure for [Davis]. We can hope it is a detour which he will continue traveling. Sachar … was able to keep much of the story's thematic integrity intact."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) adds: "The qualities that make Holes hard to synopsize also make it a good story. With multiple storylines in different time periods, it's hard for the uninitiated to imagine how the filmmakers can plug seeming holes in the narrative. But they do. And adults will likely be as intrigued as children."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves that Holes "intelligently weaves together the weaknesses and self-doubts all of us have and fills those holes with a powerful life-changing message. Holes will capture the hearts of all ages."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The movie remains as dark, strange, engaging and wildly inventive as the book. Davis … displays unexpected flair with this very different material, infusing the story with energetic integrity while giving full rein to its bizarre, cartoonish and humorous elements." He concludes, "The themes of fate and inheritance and mysterious connection give the movie a surprisingly strong resonance by its conclusion."

Movieguide's critic appreciates the moral resonance of the story, but turns in one strong objection: "For those who believe in the biblical mandate against [curses], it is not appropriate, and it will alienate many people who are the very audience for the movie." Mary Draughon (Preview) also give the film "a marginal acceptability rating due to its witchcraft element."

Scripture does indeed forbid us from consulting spiritualists and casting curses. But it certainly does not forbid telling stories that show the villainy and foolishness of such endeavors—the Bible has such stories within its own pages.

Mainstream critics have had mixed responses. CNN's David Germain says, "Beyond the book's fans … it's hard to imagine who will want to see it. Holes totters into a pit of schmaltz, a disappointingly simpleminded, black-and-white ending to a tale that had shown unusual shades of gray for a story about adolescents."

But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) writes, "I walked in expecting a movie for thirteensomethings, and walked out feeling challenged and satisfied."

J. R. Jones (Chicago Reader) agrees: "For a kids' tale, it has a surprisingly sophisticated narrative structure. For a Disney movie, Holes is mercifully low in saccharine. The film's fidelity to the plot and tone of the book is a credit to [Sachar and Davis.] Like a lot of great children's stories, Holes evokes a world in which kids have their own language and moral code that protects them from the lies and compromises of the adult world. That's a salutary vision for children of any age."

from Film Forum, 05/01/03

Director Andrew Davis's complex and rewarding new family adventure film Holes is still gleaning good reviews from Christian critics. Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Holes is one of the few children's books I've read as an adult that made me wish I'd been able to read it as a kid. Wry humor, thrills, and vividly bizarre details figure in a convoluted, almost epic plot in which seemingly unrelated elements are cleverly dovetailed into a satisfying, redemptive climax that takes on a weight of destiny. All of this is effectively brought to the screen. Holes is easily one of Hollywood's most challenging and intellectually engaging family films in recent years. Davis and Sachar deserve credit for refusing to dumb down the story and delivering a film that will reward repeated viewing."

Similarly, Christian columnist Terry Mattingly finds echoes of God's grace throughout the film.

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) echoes the praise of other religious press critics for Ed Solomon's sobering drama Levity. Vaughn writes, "Levity is perhaps a quintessential Billy Bob Thornton film. Themes of forgiveness, redemption, goodness, caring, justice, violence, choices, history—they infuse Thornton's body of work and make for meaningful films. Each member of the cast turns in a stellar performance. Levity is grounded by many themes, perhaps none more important than the destroying and saving of worlds and souls. Solomon has understood that the best way to explore that elemental matter is to walk alongside a man capable of both destroying and saving."

And Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "Levity is uncomfortable territory. It's a probing, searching movie that connects us with our own sense of guilt and our search for grace. It reminds us that these are processes, that they are part of a journey, not subject to a quick fix. It invites us to be honest about our own misdeeds and our own broken relationships."

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) praises Nick Nolte's "captivating title performance" in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief. But he gives the movie bad marks: "While it's fine on seedy atmosphere and stunning Riviera visuals, eventually its ever murkier narrative turns wear the audience out—and may leave them puzzled by the morally ambiguous conclusion."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) cautions viewers not to stumble into Laurel Canyon, which he says "espouses that most dubious of chestnuts—that self-fulfillment hinges on jettisoning social convention and embracing libertinism. This view … liberation via libertinism … has grown a bit long in the tooth. Its proponents have been singing the same tune since film critics wore bowler hats. Thankfully, this disagreeable film does little to bolster the attractiveness of their argument."

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) sat through a new slasher-thriller and writes, "If you are expecting a great art film, compelling story, inspirational movie or entertaining experience, don't go see The House of 1,000 Corpses."

He does, however, find a worthwhile observation in what he sums up as a dispiriting film. The film's portrayal of a mean-spirited church insensitive to the lost is, to Furches, partly the fault of the church in the real world. "While this movie is hard to watch, the reality … should hit home for most Christians who refuse to be a point of light to the world around them. We have not done a good job of showing the world Jesus' love by being honest examples of that love. It seems to me that when seeing this type of portrayal … at the very least we owe someone an apology and … an effort to start living a life that will change the message. Instead we tend to criticize and ostracize the world for being what they should be without Christ."

Movieguide's critic says the flick "lacks inspiration. The movie continues the terrible trend of contemporary horror movies, where the evil mad killers defeat all of their evil victims, no matter how hard they try to escape. The movie also contains plenty of strong foul language, many gory images, and nudity."

Paul Chinn (Relevant) confesses, "I'm a fan of cheesy, shoddy horror. The bad acting, the laughable special effects and the campy dialogue can make for some very memorable film viewing." But now that he has seen Rob Zombie's bloodfest, he writes, "House of 1,000 Corpses is more than bad. It's dreadful. It's vile and offensive in its ineptitude. It is so loud, so brash, so idiotic. It makes the Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like Ben-Hur."


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