One of the most unusual 'young people empowerment' films you'll ever see, this Disney family effort combines a kind of young teen "Dead Poets Society" with hard-edged road movie dealing in the kinds of topics and harsh treatment you wouldn't see outside of a tough prison or war movie, and then a screwed up timeline to add to the mix.
The result is an effort which has its sweet moments but some scenes feel way too adult or tough to be in a PG rated movie - whilst the slightly numbing pace makes you feel the entire two hour length of the production. Its an awkward film which defies categorisation which can be a damaging prospect in a genre where people specifically want to know all they can about a film before going in.
Louis Sachar adapted his own book and it sadly shows, the narrative jumping all over the place and losing focus in the minutiae. The main plot has young boys in a corrupt detention facility digging up a dry desert lakebed in search of treasure. The friendship between some of the boys is quite sweet and the young actors all pull off quite likeable turns even in the face of some very serious material. They in fact outshine the cartoonishly over the top villains of the piece with Jon Voight and Sigourney Weaver going almost clownish.
Eartha Kitt spices it up a little as an 18th century fortune teller (although her screen time is way too small), but the weirdest subplot of the year award goes to the flashbacks to the Old West where Patricia Arquette becomes a kissing outlaw and has a frowned upon interracial romance with a young black man (Dule Hill from "The West Wing") who is then killed by a mob. The plot here is of course to explain the origin of the treasure the boys are digging up in the present day but not only is it edited poorly into the main story, but its contents feel all too dour and dark for what is otherwise a tough but inspiring young movie.
The California desert locations give the whole film an authentic atmosphere of dryness, heat, dust to the point your throat will be parched just looking at the screen. The score uses staple mid-West cliched music such as acoustic guitar playing simple themes over and over - where's "Deliverance" when you need it, although like that film there's disturbing imagery (most of these young boys are shirtless a lot of the runtime which is kind of creepy when you think about it).
"Holes" wants to be this year's "The Rookie" and like that film I never got into this one much either. There's some nice friendship stuff and Weaver is always fun, but the story is just too all over the place and uninteresting. Chopping out the Old West subplot would've helped the pacing a lot but as far as family films go this is one with limited appeal.