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The Kids Have Got It

Two young adult features brighten up the box office

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Holes (PG)
Walt Disney Pictures

In a movie market jammed with adult comedies that rely on rude adolescent humor for laughs, the emergence of Holes -- an intelligent, funny kids' caper -- is cause for celebration among adult and juvenile audiences alike.

Based on the wildly popular, Newberry Medal-winning novel by Texan Louis Sachar, Holes is a Dickensian fable with enough back stories to fill several other books. The protagonist is a nerdy kid named Stanley Yelnats (yes, Yelnats is Stanley spelled backward) who is arrested for stealing a pair of celebrity tennis shoes that actually fall from the sky onto his head one day as he is walking down the street. Stanley accepts his fate with resignation; after all, his family has been under a curse for several generations, ever since his "dirty, rotten, pig-stealing great-great grandfather" in Latvia was placed under a spell by a local gypsy fortuneteller (Eartha Kitt).

The judge orders Stanley to jail or to a boys' rehabilitation center called Camp Green Lake. Opting for 18 months at Camp Green Lake, Stanley enters into an adventure that will change his life forever.

Camp Green Lake turns out to be a cracked, dried lake bed surrounded by nothing but harsh desert, baking beneath the relentless Texas sun. Here, bad boys are ordered to dig a hole -- 5 feet deep by 5 feet wide -- every day, "to build character." It's not lost on Stanley, however, that the camp's warden -- the voluptuous Warden Walker, played deliciously by Sigourney Weaver -- is looking for something beneath the desert floor. Buried treasure perhaps?

Overseeing the diggers are Mr. Sir, a sunflower seed-spitting, balloon-bellied, slit-eyed, bow-legged sociopath played by Jon Voight, and the pedantic Dr. Pendanski, also known as "Mom," a bogus child psychologist hilariously acted by Tim Blake Nelson.

Rounding out the cast is a multi-ethnic batch of boys gone wrong with names like Zigzag, Armpit and X-Ray. The runt of the group is Zero, a kid who rarely speaks but who's hell with a shovel. As Stanley is initiated into the group and given the name Caveman, we watch his self-confidence grow by virtue of some hard-earned lessons. In the process, he gains the trust of Zero who becomes key to breaking the spell of Stanley's family curse as well as the spell of Camp Green Lake -- a place that was once beautiful and fertile, until the day the townspeople lynched a local black man, an onion grower, who dared to share an innocent kiss with the white schoolmarm (Patricia Arquette).

Holes' competing storylines are masterfully handled, likely due to the fact that author Sachar wrote the screenplay. The flashbacks flow in and out of the main plot gracefully, providing rich context that brings the entire story together in the end.

Disney is to be congratulated on several points. The story never approaches the saccharine sweetness we've come to expect in youth morality tales. The characters are flawed and frequently grotesque but oddly lovable. The casting is impeccable: Weaver, Voight and Nelson are rich as the three adult villains and Shia LaBeouf as Stanley and Khleo Thomas as Zero are utterly authentic and winning. These are kids who could live in your neighborhood, who harbor vast internal strengths, who struggle with the injustices of childhood. In the end they want what all kids want -- for their parents to be happy, to figure out how to be authentic in a world of fakes.

Holes is a delightful romp, suitable for 10-year-olds, maybe a bit too scary for 6-year-olds, highly recommended for viewers 30 and up who might have forgotten the value of genuine, unadulterated adolescent humor.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Bend it Like Beckham (PG-13)
Fox Seachlight Pictures

It's amazing how flexible a story can be. Take, for example, Bend it Like Beckham, a new arrival from Britain now playing out at Cinemark 16. It is conventional in many arenas -- a straightforward coming-of-age story told in a predictable 90-minute Hollywood rhythm with few visual or filmic pyrotechnics. At the same time, this movie about a young English-Punjabi girl who defies her parents and their tradition-bound culture by playing soccer, hanging out with boys, eschewing makeup and girly clothes has a pleasant aura of specificity about it that makes it fun, entertaining and interesting.

Parminder Nagra is Jess, an Anglo-English teenager living in the London burbs with her Punjabi Sihk family. Her father (Anupam Kher) is a pilot for British Airways and her mother (Shaheen Khan) is a traditional woman who stays at home and cooks for her family. The family is focused on the upcoming marriage of Jess' older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi). Jess, meanwhile, is interested in only one thing -- football, otherwise known as soccer to us. And she's good at it. When Jules (Keira Knightley) an English girl who plays in a girl's football league spots Jess playing with a bunch of Indian guys in the park and asks her to join the league, Jess knows she cannot tell her parents and so she sneaks out to play.

This is a straightforward and largely predictable coming-of-age tale, a second-generation immigrant story (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding), a kids' team sports story. What makes this and other similar stories worthwhile is specificity -- of character, place and condition -- that give genial insight to the ways of different cultures. There's nothing tough about Bend it Like Beckham unless it is getting your mind around the icons and dialect of contemporary England. (For example, Beckham himself, who is a star soccer player, a pinup idol and married to Posh Spice. Think Michael Jordan and you might be close. Or the British slang of the slutty Indian girls. Wow.)

The major sense of complexity of the immigrant experience comes through the performance of Parminder Nagra. Her thick, dark eyebrows crinkle and arch over gorgeous eyes as she is buffeted between the competing demands of her Indian and white worlds, her desires to be close to her family and her need for differentiation. Interestingly, although Bend it Like Beckham has a girls' liberation premise -- that Jess' family must embrace her independence and her capacity to play a man's sport -- the movie buys into any number of gendered stereotypes including over-the-top performances by Shaheen Khan (Jess' mother) and Jules' mother (Juliet Stevenson), and the rivalry between Jess and Jules for the attention of the cute coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

Still, Bend it Like Beckham is a touching and rewarding movie, and well worth the trip out to Powers Boulevard if for no other reason than the sporty heroics on the soccer field interspersed with the Bollywood soundtrack. If it breaks no new cinematic or thematic ground, it treads familiar pathways in an enjoyable fashion. It's perfectly suited to the young sports fanatics in your family, at least those over 10, or those who missed Title IX benefits but still love to hit a ball. That's enough to expect from a movie -- enjoy with your family, empathize, maybe learn a thing or two.

-- Andrea Lucard

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