Holes | Raising Victor Vargas

Holes | Raising Victor Vargas

Once in a great while, the Newbery Medal actually goes to the best children’s book of the year rather than a pale compromise (that is, the third choice of everyone on the selection committee). When the 1999 award went to Holes by Louis Sachar, it honored something that is rare in juvenile literature and very common in adult fiction: narrative complexity grounded in a moral vision.

Here is a story that unfolds in four time zones. First, we meet a poor boy, with the palindromic name Stanley Yelnats, who has been unjustly sentenced to a strange reform school. Camp Green Lake is a "dry, flat wasteland" in Texas, where each young convict must dig one hole a day, five feet deep and five feet wide, before retiring to a squalid bunkhouse with smelly cots and a broken TV. It’s Sisyphus for kids. Although the phony camp psychologist describes their work as character building, the inmates know they’re really being shown that life is absurd. What’s worse, they’re all ready to agree since all previous experience confirms it. The flashbacks (time zone 2), portraying the hero’s feckless family and its inability to help him, make it clear that Stanley, fat and fatalistic, is trudging toward despair.

But then time zones 3 and 4 insist on a "divinity that shapes our ends." We read (time zone 3) of how the thoughtlessness of an ancestor provoked a curse on the Yelnats clan. Green Lake itself (time zone 4) suffers from a curse brought on by an act of racist barbarity. Amazingly, yet logically, the Yelnats curse has meshed with the Green Lake curse, and now Stanley gets a chance to undo both. No wonder Holes won the Catholic Christopher award as well as the Newbery. The tale is a refutation of nihilism, a rallying cry of free will, and a tribute to the power of expiation.

The best tribute that can be paid to the Disney film adaptation is that it preserves the author’s narrative juggling—four time zones in the air and not one comes down before it has to. The producers hired Louis Sachar himself to do the script. Though I don’t know if other hands dipped into the writing (in movieland they always do), I can’t think of any other adaptation since Sense and Sensibility that has shown such graceful fidelity to a literary source. To be sure, Sachar’s language, geared for kids, didn’t need much simplification, but the interweaving of plot threads had to be carefully managed, and was.

Andrew Davis, the director, made his reputation with the action movies Under Siege and The Fugitive and knows everything about driving a story forward while keeping it lucid and tight. He is a first-rate craftsman rather than a distinctive artist. If you compare The Fugitive with Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (another fugitive movie), you can see the difference: Harrison Ford hurtling down the waterfall was a well photographed stunt, but Cary Grant chased by the crop dusting plane was Kafka exploded into spectacle. At times I felt that Davis’s staging of Holes was too controlled, almost serene in its easy flow. Shouldn’t we have more vividly felt the grime and ache of Stanley’s labor under the unforgiving sun? And shouldn’t the climactic scene of Stan’s mountain ascent be more of a Via Dolorosa? The way it’s staged here, it looks less like the lifting of a curse than a rather arduous merit-badge assignment.

While certain parts of this movie may be too smooth, all of them finally click into place. Though I regret that Davis cast the conventionally thin and laid-back Shia La Boeuf as Stanley (the kid’s obesity is meant to be a symptom of his ongoing depression), he and all the other young actors are spontaneous, zesty, and disciplined in the way they play off each other, none hogging or shirking the spotlight. Among the adult players, Jon Voight, as the thuggish overseer, Mr. Sir, carries his own spotlight with him, creating a squinting, scratching, bowlegged incarnation of the cartoon Yosemite Sam that must have delighted the actor to concoct and which will delight the audience to watch.

he independent feature, Raising Victor Vargas, keeps a very old torch lit. Almost from the inception of filmmaking, many critics (most notably James Agee) and a certain segment of moviegoers have yearned for cinema decisively to break its ties with theater by using exclusively nonprofessional actors in roles founded on their own personalities, naturalistic narratives improvised rather than scripted, on-location shooting. In the 1960s, the invention of lightweight cameras and high-speed film made on-location shoots pretty much the norm, but fully written scripts and trained actors prevailed and now combine with special effects to make most movies more artificial than ever.

Peter Sollett has kept the faith with his new movie. Raising Victor Vargas uses no professional actors, just some expressive kids (and one old lady) from a Lower East Side New York neighborhood enacting their own problems and even using their own Christian names. The theme is poignant: How does a macho Dominican teenager learn to feel true love and express tenderness for the opposite sex in a milieu where sexual scoring is regarded as a passport to manhood? There is a feminine corollary: Will Victor’s quarry, Judy, understandably revolted by the many boys cruising her, be able to recognize the gentleness concealed by Victor’s strutting?

All the young people come through for Sollett, with Judy Marte particularly fetching as the nonbeckoning fair one. The director keeps the camera close to their faces, and the scenes are played out with smiles, winces, sneers, vulgarities, long pauses, shrugs, inane repetitions, dartings, and aversions of the eyes. The camera becomes a divining rod searching for the flow of emotion under the skin. The neighborhood itself is equally expressive with its alleyways littered with bicycles and populated by chickens (so Victor can present Judy with a baby chick as a love token rather than a bouquet of flowers).

Shall we call this sort of moviemaking truthful as opposed to the wild coincidences and unabashed theatrics of Holes? One needn’t choose one method over the other, but I have to report that while I was intermittently charmed by Victor Vargas, I was uninterruptedly gripped by Holes, and I came to feel that Holes finally provided the more truthful experience. For me, poetic truth is delivered by thoroughgoing storytelling with a completed arc and not by a concatenation of nuances.

The devil sneaks through a back window whenever you lock the front door. Apparently, Sollett would like to do without plot altogether, but whenever his movie threatens to stall, he jumpstarts it with plot devices that might shame the most commercial Broadway dramatist. A grandmother must arrive at just the right moment to hear just the wrong part of a conversation. A best friend must tattle on Judy just when Victor is feeling tenderness for her, etc., etc.

Committed to artifice, Holes comes across as wholehearted. Committed to "truth," Raising Victor Vargas, for all its naturalism, ends up being more than a bit manipulative. Go see both movies, anyway. end

Published in the 2003-06-20 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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