When director Andrew Davis first read Louis Sachar's acclaimed children's novel, "Holes," about a boy sent to a hellish Texas juvenile delinquent camp, he said he "detected a Jewish family." The story of the fictional Stanley "Caveman" Yelnats IV flashes back three generations to reveal how his forebears struggled to come to America, "which reflects the Jewish immigration experience," Davis ("The Fugitive") said.
No wonder his adaptation of the best seller is a Texas fable that feels oddly familiar. He cast Jewish actors Henry Winkler and Nathan Davis (Andrew's dad) to play Stanley's father and grandfather, whose favorite endearment is "boychick." Shia LeBeouf ("Evens Stevens"), who portrays Stanley, is a member of the tribe, and actor Khleo Thomas (Yelnats' mysterious African American friend Hector Zero) has a Moroccan Jewish mother and an African American father, Davis said. After conversations on the set, Thomas decided to become a bar mitzvah through LeBeouf's rabbi, according to Davis.
While Jewish author Sachar didn't grant his characters any specific ethnicity, he said they embody the talmudic value of "making the world a better place."
Davis, 56, said he grew up with family lore that reminds him of the Yelnatses. "My great aunt had seven sisters, one of whom was dating a Russian officer who saved them from a pogrom," he said by way of example.
By the time he was growing up in Chicago, his parents were committed to progressive Jewish values, refusing to flee their South Side street when it became predominantly African American. Davis, in turn, helped register black voters in Alabama and made his first movie about his brother, the last white musician in the old neighborhood. He went on to direct films such as "The Fugitive," which involved a drug conspiracy, and "Collateral Damage," about terrorism in Columbia.
While observers say "Holes" represents a departure for the director, best known for action thrillers, he points out that the film, "like the 'Fugitive,' revolves around a person falsely accused of a crime."
Then there are the Jewish values. "'Holes' teaches kids that by learning about their family's struggle, they can empathize with others who are struggling in America," he said.
The film opens April 18 in Los Angeles.