If wild horses couldn’t drag you to see a so-called ‘family film’, then be warned: that’s exactly what Holes is. But equally, be aware that’d you’d be ruling yourself out from a real treat. There’s more solid storytelling and ingenuity here than the vast majority of this season’s ‘grown up’ features. Kill Bill (2003) for one can’t hold a candle to it.
Its pedigree is promising: it’s adapted from an American children’s best-seller that’s already spoken of as a modern classic. But thankfully the cinematic result’s not in the dismal Harry Potter league. Our young hero is Stanley Yelnats, who lives with his parents and grandfather in a pokey apartment. His eccentric father is obsessed with inventing a cure for shoe odour. In a twist of fate – by no means the last in store – whilst wandering outdoors one afternoon, Stanley is smacked on the head by a pair of pedigree trainers that fall from nowhere. It turns out they’re sought-after and stolen, and Stanley is charged with the theft. His punishment is to spend the summer at Camp Green Lake correctional facility. It’s no ordinary institution. Despite its name, there’s no lake and no sign of any greenery. In the dry desert earth, the young inmates are charged with digging a new hole every day, five feet deep and five feet wide. But there’s method in the apparent madness. The reclusive warden believes something invaluable lies buried there.
In lesser hands, the ingenuity and energy that fuel Holes might become gruesomely wacky, but thankfully there’s steady hands on the wheel here. The present-day tale of Stanley and the camp has roots that reach back generations, and the fluid narrative weaves in a raft of flashbacks that unveils the bigger picture with admirable deftness. It’s a study of family fortunes and friendships forged under pressure, which gleefully confounds accepted Hollywood wisdom that audiences don’t buy coincidences. Indeed it’s those very parallels that bind the tale together, as though some greater force is guiding circumstances into certain patterns. It could even be read as an expressionist representation of school life, which itself seems like a prison where grim-faced forces of authority marshal the young into endless, seemingly pointless activities.
It’s a handsome-looking film indeed, and the performances are something to relish. The younger set – the pairing of LaBeouf and Thomas in particular – invest the piece with warmth and depth with a genuine lightness of touch. The prospect of watching a group of young actors fight and bond and emote isn’t always to be relished, but there’s no talking down to the audience here. Instead there’s sophistication, empathy and intelligence. Of the thespian older guard, only Weaver is less than noteworthy. To be fair, her role’s nothing special, requiring merely a glowering, avaricious presence. But Voigt, and the admirable Nelson, really have something to conjure with as quietly dastardly prison warders. Arguably there’s a dash of pantomime about their villainy – after all, this is a Disney picture – but theirs are rich performances that rise above being one-dimensional or cartoon. Most agreeably of all, no element here, be it cinematography or acting, is allowed to be so stylised as to overshadow the wondrous feat of storytelling at the film’s heart. It’s this admirable economy and restraint, all too rare in family films, that impresses most. Rarely does a story seem so fresh and compelling in these jaded times, but this is a delight, almost guaranteed to achieve its goal of engaging and entertaining even the wary until they can’t help but grin. Seriously, if you instantly dismissed Holes as being not your cup of tea, you’d do well to reconsider. You can always borrow a child to take in with you.