Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Holes

Today's Think of the Children! post is a little bit controversial. Not in that the movie we're talking about is controversial itself. It's only controversial in how much we all freaking like it despite the general trend that book adaptations kind of suck. But no, today's pick is controversial because it's hard to say whether or not it's actually a kids' movie. 

We're talking about Holes, for the record, if you didn't read the title for some reason.

So, is Holes a kids' movie? Well, obviously my answer here is going to be yes, since I am featuring it on my weekly post about children's media. But it's also not quite as simple as that. Because while I do think that Holes is intended for a young audience, I don't think it's meant for, you know, little little kids. More tweens and up, I would think.

But that's what makes Holes such an interesting film. Not that it's made for tweens and teens, but that it isn't made for adults. This is a movie about the juvenile criminal justice system, institutionalized racism, foster care, child abuse, and also murder, and it's intended for ten year olds. And here's the wackiest part of all: it's good.

How the hell did that happen?

Holes, based on the book by Louis Sachar (who wrote the screenplay as well), is a story about the boys sent to Camp Greenlake, a juvenile correctional facility out in the middle of the desert. Stanley Yelnats (a young, pre-crazy Shia LaBeouf) has been sent out to Camp Greenlake after his family's terrible luck got him arrested for a crime he didn't commit. Stanley, a young teenager, is sentenced to a vague period of time at the camp, in order to "reform" him. But really what they mean is that they're going to force him to dig holes in the hot sun all day.

Because that's what Camp Greenlake does. Overseen by the Warden (Sigourney Weaver), and her henchmen, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), the boys of the camp head out every morning before dawn, into the dried up lakebed, where they each dig a hole. The holes are about five feet deep and five feet around, and you have to dig the hole until you're done before you can leave. And then in the morning you get up and you dig another hole. And another. And another.

Stanley isn't accepted at the camp at first, since the lack of genuine adult supervision has turned the place largely into Lord of the Flies land. Plus, Stanley is a soft, white, gentle kid, and that's like a gazelle prancing in front of a herd of lions on the Serengeti. They smell food. And then they attack.

The only one who doesn't attack Stanley is the one who is just as ostracized as him: Zero (Khleo Thomas). Zero, whose name is short for Hector Zeroni, not that anyone knows that, is a street kid whose mother has been lost into the system, and who was squatting at a bus station when he was caught. Zero has no friends or family - no one to miss him - and he's never really had any sustained human contact. He doesn't get most jokes, he misses common turns of phrase, and he can't read. 

But for all that, he isn't stupid, nor is he lazy. Zero proposes a trade with Stanley. If Stanley teaches him to read, then he'll help Stanley dig his holes. Win-win, right?

Well, not as far as the overseers of Camp Greenlake are concerned. Or the other boys. They see this as cheating, and also a waste of time. After all, Zero's an idiot who's never going to learn to read, right? The eventual confrontation over this causes Zero to assault Dr. Pendanski (who totally had it coming) and run off into the desert. Good for Zero, he's finally free of the abuse! And now he's free to die of dehydration and be eaten by buzzards. Crap.

Stanley holds out for a few days (while the Warden has everything Hector ever touched destroyed so they can't be held liable for his death), but then he goes after Zero. He feels responsible. And, I have to say, no matter how old you are, Stanley's escape is incredibly exciting and cheer-worthy.

Fortunately for our heart-strings, when Stanley finds Zero, Zero's pretty much fine. I mean, he's down to his last jar of sploosh (weird preserves he found in a wrecked boat on the dried up lakebed), but he's mostly okay. And he's never ever going back to camp. Instead, they're going to climb that mountain over there, where it rains, and see if they can get out.

Before I go any further, though, I should point out that there's another story going on in this movie. It's sort of vaguely hinted at sometimes, and then we get downloads of what's going on in nice chunks every once in a while. The story is about outlaw Kissing Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), who buried her treasure somewhere in the lakebed. That's why the boys have to dig holes. But it's really about who Kissing Kate was, and what made her turn into an outlaw. It's tied into the story geographically, sure, but there's also this handy thing where Stanley's great-grandfather was robbed by her, thus kicking off the family curse, and where Zero's great-great(?)-grandmother was a psychic who helped her, etc.

Anyway, the plot doesn't just tell us about Kate's thieving, it also shows us her life before, when she was the kindly schoolteacher in Green Lake, a little town on the edge of the (then) lake. Kate was beautiful and much sought after, but her heart belonged to the "onion man", Sam (Dule Hill). They loved each other and were totally adorable together, but since Sam was black, and because Kate turned down the richest man in town to be with him, the town freaked out. Sam was murdered, the schoolhouse burned, and Kate went super duper dark.

Honestly? Good for her, at this point.

Anyway, at some point in there Kate buried her treasure, and then managed to curse the rich guy's family (whose granddaughter turns out to be the Warden), that they would dig and dig for a hundred years and never find the treasure. Then she dies of a self-inflicted lizard wound.

So, to point, the boat that Zero and Stanley hide in is Sam's boat, and eventually they find their way to the mountain, where they stumble onto Sam's old onion field, still growing well after all these years. But man cannot live by onion alone. And, Stanley and Zero think they might know where to find the treasure. They sneak back down and across the desert in the middle of the night, and they manage to dig up the treasure chest at last, only to be caught by the Warden and Mr. Sir and Dr. Pendanski. 

Only (and here's where the coincidence kind of kicks in), that's when Stanley's lawyer shows up to say that he's actually free to go, and then the Warden gets discovered for being a terrible person, and the treasure chest turns out to have Stanley's name on it (because it belonged to his great-grandfather), and Hector's been erased from the system so he can leave any time. And then the camp is shut down and the boys are all released and Stanley and Zero have money now and Zero finds his mom and it's all just so stinking nice.

Okay, so that's what happens. Why do we care?

Well, for starters, that story wasn't exactly morally simplistic, was it? And, remember, this is a movie and book for tweens. Ten year olds. The movie isn't some big dark and brooding drama, it's actually a pretty light dramedy, just one that happens to deal with child abuse and racism and sexual harassment and discrimination. But it does it all without being preachy. It's just what's happening to these boys.

What that does is makes this narrative wholly relatable, and not exactly tamed down, but translated into a medium that kids can understand. It's hard to tell a ten year old that systematized racism is responsible for the overabundance of poor kids of color in the criminal justice system, but you can show them Zero, and let them come to really like him, and when Zero gets hurt, they get mad, and when they find out that Zero isn't an unusual case, then it'll hit home. It simplifies the issues, not morally, but emotionally. We know that it's bad that the rich man is cornering Miss Kate in her classroom. We don't have to spell sexual harassment out here. Kids are smart. They don't need to be preached at. They just need to be told a story.

From a more technical standpoint, I have to give Louis Sachar a lot of props here. Most novelists are absolutely terrible at adapting their own work, but he did a bang up job. I would argue that the movie is actually better than the book, ever so slightly, if only for the fact that seeing the abuse these boys endure is more emotionally affecting than reading about it. At least for me.

And make no mistake. This movie doesn't pull any punches. The boys are funny characters, and they are, like kids, prone to making light of things, but this is a horribly abusive environment. That's part of what makes the story so powerful. It's about victory over systematized oppression. And it's for kids.

So, in short, if you don't love Holes, I don't really know what to do with you. You should love it. It's worth loving. It's a movie (and book) that takes complex, important issues, and explains them in a way that by no means lessens their truth or impact, but allows them to be revealed to kids. And that is so important.

Look at these cuties.

As for next week, quick poll! Should we cover Veggie Tales or Madeline?


  1. Veggie Tales... :)

  2. I adore the book, and quite enjoyed the movie, but I will never quite get over the casting of Shia LaBeouf when Stanley's supposed to be a fat kid. And it's quite important, too, to his character, that he's a big fat kid, because he's got that thing of being the shy, awkward kid who feels like he takes up too much space and is self-conscious about it. As he's self-conscious about most things about himself, at least at the start of the story.

    1. You do have a point with that. I feel like Shia LaBeouf did a good job getting across a guy who's trying to disappear, but I totally agree that an actually large actor would have been much more effective.

  3. I never read the book, so I had no preconceptions about the character; I can see how that change would be upsetting if you had. I watched this totally on a whim and had no idea it would be such a great movie. I think I just put it on as background noise while I was doing a bunch of other stuff, all of which I immediately neglected because the film was so engrossing. The Beef knocked it out of the park--everybody did. Bonkers good movie.

    And Madeline! Know nothing about veggie tales.

    1. Such a good movie. Really surprising too.

      Hmmm. Votes are tied for Veggie Tales or Madeline... We'll have to see what happens... :D

  4. The reason they cast a thin actor as Stanley was actually a pretty good one - in the book her loses a lot of weight, but they had a short filming time and the director was concerned about that actor's health.

    A friend of mine pointed something else out, which was that there's a slight implication that the Yelnats are Jewish(Stanley's grandfather speaks Yiddish) and that we only ever see Kate /kill/ white men, even if she robs from everybody.