Holes (Buena Vista/Disney, 2003)

It is said that the Mongol hordes wore silk shirts that were so tightly woven that they could not be pierced by arrows. A hit would drive the unbroken fabric into the wearer's flesh, and the arrowhead could later be removed by gently tugging at the shirt instead of having to painfully and messily pull or cut out the arrowhead.

The hero of Holes is Stanley Yelnats, played by Shia LaBeouf, who seems to be the victim of a record spell of random bad luck. He's a mild-mannered kid who's walking along, minding his own business, when a pair of sneakers falls out of the sky and bonks him over the head. Because the shoes stink and his father, charmingly portrayed by Henry Winkler, is searching for a cure for sneaker odor, Stanley picks them up to take home. He's promptly arrested for stealing them. It turns out that they belonged to an extremely famous sports star who had donated them for an auction to benefit a homeless shelter.

Before you can say Stanley Yelnats, he's sentenced to eighteen months at Camp Green Lake. Despite its name, the camp is in a desert which is somewhat less hospitable than Death Valley due to the prevalence of deadly spotted lizards. The name, however, proves to be more than cheap irony.

The camp philosophy is "If you take a bad boy and make him dig holes all day in the hot sun, he will turn into a good boy." This resonant line ranks with "What we have here is a failure to communicate" as a summing up of the eternal struggle between non-conformists and the Orwellian criminal justice system.

But there's more going on than political commentary. The camp warden has ordered the boys to tell her if they find anything unusual while they're digging. Could the camp be a front for a search for buried treasure? How does this relate to the flashbacks of a doomed interracial love affair in the Old West? What about the flashbacks set in Latvia and showing how an ancestor of Stanley's offended a fortune-teller and got the Yelnats family cursed with bad luck?

The novel Holes, by Louis Sachar, is the most deserving Newbery Award winner since Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown. It's a multi-layered puzzle story in which every single seemingly random detail, from the lizards to the shoe odor to Stanley's palindromic name, turns out to be essential to the plot. It's also a pitch-perfect comic allegory, an unusual type of fairy tale, and a moving commentary on race and progress. I've never read anything quite like it.

The movie isn't as perfect as the book -- some of the performances by the adults are distractingly over-the-top -- but this adaptation of an extraordinary book is still pretty extraordinary itself. From the stunning opening shot of a whole lot of holes, to the funny and touching ensemble work by the Camp Green Lake boys, to the smoothly orchestrated series of revelations by which we discover how everything from a jar of peaches to a camp nickname to that fated pair of sneakers is part of a single unified whole, screenwriter Louis Sachar and director Andrew Davis do themselves proud.

What about those Mongol shirts, you ask? Glad you remembered. The better you are at keeping track of details, the more you'll enjoy and appreciate the film. As for the shirts themselves, they're just one of the many things which aren't woven half as tight as the plot of Holes.

[Rachel Manija Brown]