Family films often sink in gooey sentimentality. Not so this Disney's live-actioner based on an award-winning contemporary novel by Louis Sachar. An index of the tone is the vast, arid establishing shots and a growling blues soundtrack. Our gangly adolescent hero is Stanley Yelnats IV (LaBeouf), seemingly fated to be as unlucky as his inventor father (Winkler), when he's wrongly arrested for theft. A harsh, bleakly funny trial delivers Stanley to a boys' labour camp, where inmates wear orange boilersuits and spend their days digging in the desert, at the command of the Warden (Weaver). Stanley's arrival triggers an even stranger turn of events, and unravels family histories, including a mixed-race romance in the old Wild West. Adults play strictly supporting roles, but to strong effect, with cameos including Arquette as a bandit queen, Voight as creepy guard Mr Sir, and even Eartha Kitt as a Latvian fortune-teller (sadly, she doesn't sing). The kids, though, steal the show, notably Thomas, who's a punchy presence as Stanley's enigmatic sidekick Zero. The flashback narrative is standard, but it builds tension over nearly two hours, with a finale that warms the cockles.