In the half-real, half-make-believe world of Holes, Texan juvenile delinquents skip counseling and community service and go straight to Camp Green Lake — a prison by any other name – where they’re forced to dig until their hands bleed and their consciences grow. Their captors tell them digging is good for the soul and, in a way, they’re right. After all, hate leads to bonding and hardship breeds brotherhood — and this camp is an arid wasteland where the dusty pallor of overworked teenage boys blends in so well with the surroundings that it seems like the prisoners will never be released.

Indeed, not a single boy is sprung from Camp Green Lake at the will of the warden (Sigourney Weaver) or her henchmen, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Pedanski (Tim Blake Nelson). The warden is a private entrepreneur who somehow wangled state status to take on able-bodied criminals, and she uses her charges as a personal chain gang to search the desert for a long-lost treasure that will return her family to its former glory.

This is the environment in which Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) finds himself after he’s wrongly convicted for stealing a baseball player’s famous sneakers that were meant for charity auction. Upon arriving at the camp — which is neither green nor has a lake — he is hazed by his new soon-to-be-friends, who have names like X-Ray and Zero (Khleo Thomas), screamed at by Mr. Sir, handed a shovel and introduced to the character-building joys of aching muscles and dehydration.

Stanley being punished for something he didn’t do is just one more piece of bad luck in the Yelnats family’s generations-deep string of misfortunes. It all began after Stanley’s great-great-grandfather was cursed by a Latvian fortuneteller — an incident which figures largely into several subplots and flashbacks, including the backstory of the warden’s beloved treasure and a silly but sweet, forbidden love affair in the 1800s between the murderess Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette) and an onion-chomping handyman named Sam (Dule Hill). But all of this bad luck leads Stanley to a point where he seems poised to break the family curse with the help of Zero.

There’s a lot to like in the Louis Sachar novel of the same name on which Holes is based. Sachar, who also wrote the screenplay, has a gift for the wacky breakaway bolts of imagination that streak through the minds of children young and old — and his conception of the relationships between characters and recognition of just how far the limits of believability can be pushed made the book a modern classic. The problem with Holes the movie is that there’s less to like simply because it is a movie, a children’s movie, even, and as such has a limited amount of time in which to present a complex, layered tale. This is a common complaint about movies based on books, but with Holes it’s especially appropriate because so much of the story seems abridged, even if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Sachar’s prose. The lives of Stanley’s prison pals are especially condensed, practically to the point of nonexistence.

That doesn’t mean that Holes is a bad film. Far from it, and director Andrew Davis (who returns to the familiar nuclear glow of prison-jumpsuit orange a decade after making The Fugitive) and company should be lauded for their excellent casting choices. LaBeouf might not match the exact description of Stanley in the novel, but he captures the essence of the well-meaning, mildly mischievous boy (and has the good fortune to be relatively unknown except to watchers of the Disney Channel, where he stars in “Even Stevens”).

The same goes for Thomas and the rest of the gang, while the film’s best-known quantities — Weaver and Voight — provide a good-sized dose of ham. (Voight has never been one to avoid a chance to expand his acting repertoire — read: Anaconda and a bizarre appearance on a Britney Spears HBO special — and his bug-eyed portrayal of Mr. Sir would be embarrassing if it weren’t such a total caricature.)

Holes works on the strength of Sachar’s story and its “anti-kids-movieness,” for lack of a better term. The morals are subdued and the realities of human interaction are tweaked just enough to make the unfunny laughable. Best of all, a tale that’s so obviously fake manages to come across as perfectly plausible, even as it refuses to play down to the lowest common denominator. It might be a better read, but Holes is still a quality movie.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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