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Holes / Raising Victor Vargas

I grew up on Disney's live-action movies. You know, the ones starring sentient cars named Herbie, kicking donkeys named Gus, and Don Knotts, whose characters were far less intelligent than Benji the wonder dog. The films may not have been animated, but they certainly were cartoony.

Holes, adapted from the award-winning book by Louis Sachar, is a throwback to that not-so-golden age of filmmaking. Though the book is a marvelous story about friendship and family legacies, the movie reduces Sachar's subtle meditation to a simplistic tale. Not that the narrative has changed (Sachar actually wrote the screenplay so as to protect the book's integrity), but the feel and emotion have. It's no longer a magical tale,
but a live-action cartoon.

The story is too complicated to reduce to 150 words. Read the book instead, it's fantastic. But basically it concerns Stanley Yelnats (Shia LeBeouf, from tv's "Even Stevens) who is mistakenly arrested for stealing a pair of shoes. Instead of going to jail, he's sent to a juvenile boot camp named Camp Green Lake, incongruously named as there isn't a drop of water for miles around. The camp builds character in its young detainees by having them dig a hole every day--five feet wide and five feet deep. It becomes apparent that the camp directors (played by Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voigt, and Tim Blake Nelson) are actually looking for something. Could it be the treasure buried by the bandit Kissing Kate Barlow so many years ago?

At the camp, Stanley is thrown in with a multi-ethnic group of kids with such colorful nicknames as Armpit, ZigZag, and X-Ray. There's also a little guy named Zero (Khleo Thomas) who doesn't talk much. The comradery among the kids has that old-time Disney feel. They may fight occasionally, but they all have hearts of gold. After a while, Stanley and Zero form a special bond when Stanley teaches Zero to read.

Along with this contemporary tale, Holes has an intricate flashback structure featuring Stanley's great-great grandfather and great grandfather, Kissing Kate Barlow, Zero's ancestor, and a host of other stock stereotypes. What works as magic realism on the page is reduced to simple backstory in the film. Which is a shame, as none of the book's sublimity reaches the screen. Instead we watch Voigt and Eartha Kitt ham it up as bad as Don Knotts used to. The little ones might laugh, but the adults will be bored. It doesn't help that the movie's music is an irritating piece of product placement, continually goading you to go out and buy a soundtrack of songs that have nothing to do with the film. The direction by Chicagoan Andrew Davis is fond of slo-mo shots and lightning flashes, substituting special effects for real heart.

Not that the movie is all bad. LeBeouf and Thomas are winning in their portrayal of good-natured young teens, and their interracial friendship is laudable, if nothing else. I also enjoyed Tim Blake Nelson as a touch-feely
counselor who spouts aphorisms like "It should be no labor to be nice to your neighbor." And Sachar's story is powerful enough that even a Disney-fied version can still bring a smile or tear. And I have to remind myself that I enjoyed movies like Herbie the Love Bug; I suspect today's generation of young 'uns might feel the same about Holes.  

Covering the same thematic ground with much greater sophistication is a new movie entitled Raising Victor Vargas. Set in Manhattan's Lower East Side, it features the title character (played by Victor Rasuk), who lives with his younger brother and sister and his grandmother. Hanging out at the pool one day with his friend Harold (Kevin Rivera), he spies the lovely Judy (Judy Marte). He tries to put the moves on her but is quickly rebuffed. But his persistence pays off when Judy realizes that hanging out with Victor has some unanticipated advantages.

The rest of the movie chronicles Victor and Judy's relationship as well as Victor's growing conflicts with his family, particularly his Catholic, immigrant grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). She sees Victor's burgeoning
sexuality as a grave threat to the house and attempts to either scold it out of him or scold him out of their project apartment.

Recalling other small films about kids growing up, like George Washington and Our Song (both favorites of mine), Raising Victor Vargas has a naturalism that is welcome in our age of Disney-fied artificiality. The
lead pair of Rasuk and Marte are brilliant in their evocation of the awkward exuberance of adolescence. Their understated performances fit perfectly with Peter Sollett's direction, which has a lazy air to match the summertime setting. I mean 'lazy' as a compliment. His use of hand-held camera lends a fly-on-the-wall aura to the movie, making us feel like we've stumbled into this New York project and fell into these characters' lives. And these lives aren't ones we see on reality shows or kids flicks; they're too real for that brand of exhibitionism. Raising Victor Vargas is a beautifully-handled portrait of Victor's world. Despite some rough language, it should find an audience among both young and old.   

J. Robert Parks 4/15/2003

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