When Louis Sachar's young-people's novel 'Holes' came out in 1998 it became an instant classic, winning both the Newbery and the National Book Awards. They were well deserved, because the novel - like the previous year's first Harry Potter book - had a compelling plot, a mystery, some delicious characters both good and evil, a boy protagonist with warmth, brains and universal appeal, and the security that readers feel in the hands of an author in complete command of inventive, original material.
Now the movie is out, with Sachar as his own screenwriter, and although like the Harry Potter films it isn't quite as wonderful as the novel, it is almost as good, which we should be happy to settle for. Young Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is the fourth generation of a cursed family, with the curse beginning many years ago in Latvia, when the first Yelnats forgot to complete his obligation to a witch (Eartha Kitt). Now Stanley, living with his family in Texas, is mistakenly convicted of stealing a pair of a baseball star's spikes and sent to the not-so-tender mercies of Sigourney Weaver, warden of a camp for delinquent boys called Green Lake Camp, which happens to be in the middle of a horrendous desert. Her cruel and sadistic aides are Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson).
Each day the boys are sent out with shovels to dig holes in the desert - five feet deep, five feet across. One hole per day, every day. As we see, by now there are thousands of holes for miles around. Why they must dig, and what the secret is that lies behind it, is the mystery of the film. But there's more as well, because the story also stops in 19th century Texas, when a lovely school-mistress, Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette) is hounded by a racist mob because she responded to a black man (Dulé Hill). How all these are related is revealed in the course of the film.
The casting of young Shia LaBeouf as Stanley Yelnats, and Khleo Thomas as Zero, his homeless and illiterate friend at the camp, is beyond praise. They are never 'cute,' they hold their own without stepping out of character and into sitcom land. And the other boys are very much like any group of adolescents. They're mean, they're (occasionally) kind, they fight, they smell, they fart (only once, to get the PG rating), they try to make the best of it all. They're real.
"Holes" was directed by Andrew Davis, whose previous work has been primarily action films like "Under Siege," "The Fugitive," and last year's "Collateral Damage." His work is the one weak spot in the film, because he has the action-director's habit of cutting too quickly, not trusting his actors or his script to let a scene play out for impact. It's as though he has no time for his people. But because the casting is so good and the story so compelling, the film easily survives his mannerisms and remains a pleasure to watch.