Five feet by five feet. These are the dimensions of Stanley Yelnats’ days. Every 24 hours he digs a hole that’s five feet in diameter and five feet deep in the barren, sun-scorched earth of Camp Green Lake, a "getaway" for juvenile delinquents. His pedantic counselor Dr. Pendanski and the sunflower seed-spitting enforcer Mr. Sir both tell him he’s digging holes to build his character. But Stanley doesn’t particularly need to have his character built since he was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. (Not surprising considering the Yelnats family’s century-old run of bad luck that began when a fortuneteller cursed Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.) So it’s understandable that he’s a bit skeptical about his overseers’ desire to make him a better member of society through manual labor. He and his fellow inmates—the aptly nicknamed X-Ray, Armpit, Zig-Zag, Magnet, Squid and Zero—are told that they’ll get a day off from work if they find something "interesting" while they’re digging. Something interesting enough to please the tough-as-nails Warden, that is.
It should be noted at this point that the powers-that-be at Camp Green Lake don’t really care about character. They’re looking for something and using their charges to find it. As time passes and Stanley ponders the mystery of what everyone’s searching for, a greater enigma begins to unfold. And that enigma is buried in a hole, coated in dust. It hasn’t rained for over 100 years at Camp Green Lake, not since a terrible atrocity turned Kissin’ Kate Barlow into an outlaw. ...
positive elements: Buried in Holes is a hefty cache of worthwhile themes, but most of them are handled descriptively rather than overtly. Bullying gets denounced when Stanley is seen being poked, prodded, pushed and scorned by his "friends" at Camp Green Lake. True friendship is lauded when Stanley takes the universally avoided Zero under his wing, teaching the socially unengaged half-pint to read and ultimately saving his life. Irrational prejudice is decried when the film shows a violent social upheaval that boils up after Kate Barlow shares a kiss with Sam, an African-American onion dealer. The nature of real justice is displayed by showing its opposite in the sanctimonious yet hypocritical Pendanski, the cruel Mr. Sir and the dictatorial Warden. The love of family, insufficiency of surface beauty, need for perseverance, all-consuming nature of greed and necessity of getting a good education receive equally positive and subtle emphasis. A note to parents: While subtlety sometimes makes for engaging viewing, it also make it easier to wrongly interpret or miss the point entirely. Consider a pre- and post- Holes family chat if you choose to indulge.
spiritual content: A couple of Biblical allusions pop up (mainly a reference to the Flood and a landmark called God’s Thumb). But its the nebulous concept of "destiny" provides the film’s spiritual framework. Stanley’s grandfather, also named Stanley (Stanley is "Yelnats" backwards), claims that the men in his family are hexed "always and forever" because Stanley’s great-great-grandfather broke a promise he made to a fortuneteller. The claim isn’t entirely true since (without giving too much away) the so-called curse doesn’t last "always and forever." What viewers learn is that an impersonal force is seeking to right wrongs and rectify injustices in the Yelnats family and elsewhere. If Holes had substituted God for Destiny, it wouldn’t be problematic. As it stands, the spirituality of the movie is misleading, but not heavy-handed. It may serve as a platform for parents to remind their children that the self-existent and very personal Yahweh is the one who sets the outcome of human lives, not fate or destiny (read Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:11, Job 42:2).
nudity and sexual content: Stanley briefly appears in his underwear while changing into his Camp Green Lake regulation jumpsuit. A scoundrel leers at a woman who makes spiced fruit, commenting that he enjoys "peaches." Stanley becomes nervous about showering once he discovers that the Warden has miniature cameras hidden all over the camp (a number of boys make crude jokes about the spying). After seeing the words "Mary Lou" emblazoned on a boat, Stanley jokes that she must have looked great in a bikini (an ironic comment since Mary Lou is a donkey).
violence and gore: The opening scene shows a "camper" allowing himself to be bitten by a rattlesnake in order to escape (the bite is masked by a succession of quick camera cuts). Stanley gets knocked to the ground by a pair of shoes that fall from the sky. He’s regularly shoved and bullied by his fellow campers. Gunplay is integral to the Kissin’ Kate Barlow mythos, but clever camera work and editing shield viewers from explicit violence. Elsewhere, a man is shot, but he’s seen from a great distance. Stanley’s hands blister and bleed as he digs his first hole. Mr. Sir blasts a virulent yellow-spotted lizard with his revolver and audiences catch a quick glimpse of its corpse. An insane woman allows one of the toxic critters to bite her (she’d rather die than tell a secret to a rifle-wielding thug). Campers find themselves trapped in a hole by scores of the lethal beasties. The film’s most intense moment comes when the angry Warden scratches Mr. Sir on the face after applying a fresh coat of venom-infused fingernail polish. The poison causes him to writhe on the ground in agony and leaves his face puffy and discolored. Zero hits a mocking Dr. Pendanski in the face with a shovel. Later he cuts his hands while helping Stanley up a cliff. A violent mob storms through a town and sets a schoolhouse on fire. Stanley drives a truck into a hole.
crude or profane language: Unfortunately, God’s name is abused almost 10 times. About half a dozen mild profanities ("d--n" and "h---") crop up. Crudities and put-downs such as "schmuck," "jacka--," "cow turd," "fart" and "Neanderthal" turn up, "crap" being the most common.
drug and alcohol content: A recovering nicotine addict, Mr. Sir eats sunflower seeds to keep from smoking (by the end of the movie he’s reverted to the old habit). A number of unsavory characters drink. A fortuneteller puffs on a pipe.
other negative elements: Stanley sleeps on a stained cot (its previous occupant was nicknamed Barf Bag). Armpit suffers from horrible body odor and flatulence. After eating fermented food in order to stay alive in the desert, Zero vomits. Stanley lies in his letters about the great time he’s having at camp so that his mother won’t worry. He also lies to keep other campers from getting in trouble when they steal Mr. Sir’s sunflower seeds. Stanley steals a truck to go save Zero when he’s stranded in the desert.
conclusion: With its striking cinematography, vivid character development, complex plot and deft treatment of universal human themes, Holes is a much deeper film than its "Home Alone 6: Danger in the Desert" promotional campaign indicates. Originally a novel, the story won a Newberry Award in 1999 for excellence in children’s literature. And unlike many book-to-film conversions, this movie maintains the book’s distinction. It didn’t hurt that author Louis Sachar penned the screenplay.
Every family considering diving into Holes will have to grapple with whether or not the film’s occasional crudity, violent scenes and misuses of the Lord’s name push it out of bounds. But this movie presents another dilemma of sorts. Holes doesn’t quickly fill in all the questions it unearths. Was the curse on the Yelnats family genuine or merely a quirk of fate? Should we sympathize with the heartbroken Kissin’ Kate Barlow or decry her murderous thievery? How much does the perseverance of Stanley’s dad contribute to his success as an inventor and how much of it is the machinations of destiny? This descriptive film offers such forthright commentary only occasionally, letting viewers work to make the various ethical connections. "I never set out to teach a lesson," says Sachar. "My goal [has] always [been] to write a fun, entertaining and thought-provoking story. Any messages, and I think there are many in [the] book, come naturally out of the story." The same holds true for the movie and that’s good or bad depending on how you look at it. Those who want a neat and tidy moral lesson free of loose ends will be frustrated by the movie’s seeming lack of clarity. Parents looking for a well-crafted cinematic tale with lots to talk about afterwards will consider it a treasure trove.