A dry and desperate desert environment is shown in the opening sequence, while the conservation of water and allusions to slavery in America are reoccurring themes. In the city, Stanley Yelnats is busted by police for "stealing shoes", tried in court and sent the Camp Green Lake. The family curse is blamed for Stanley's misfortune. At camp, Stanley Yelnats meets Mr Sir.
Stanley is sent out on his first day of work at Camp Green Lake. Interwoven flashbacks reveal the origin of the Yelnats family curse and his great-great grandfather's broken promise to a fortune teller.
Stanley digs up a fossil and shows the camp councillor. He learns Camp Green Lake was once a populous lakeside town with ties to Mr Sir's family. The group accepts Stanley at the expense of Zero, once his only friend. The camp councillor tries to discuss why the boys are here, but the lines between good and bad are blurry. Zero asks Stanley for help, but Stanley refuses him.
Rex bullies Stanley into handing over a mysterious object he found in the dirt, which he shows to camp councillor Dr Pendanski. Warden Walker is called to inspect the find. Rex receives the day off and the boys are told to dig double-time in search of more artefacts. Flashbacks to the populous Camp Green Lake show a burgeoning romance between Sam the onion man and Katherine Barlow, and her rejection of wealthy heir to the town, Charles "Trout" Walker.
At camp, Warden Walker is annoyed by the lack of results. While in Green Lake, Charles "Trout" Walker has become enraged that Katherine rejected him for Sam and has incited the town to persecute him. Katherine is heartbroken and seeks revenge on those involved, transforming into the infamous "Kissing Kate". The scene deals with American history, racism and law.
Mr Sir tells the boys about a place that never rains. Stanley takes the blame for stealing Mr Sir's sunflower seeds and is brought to Warden Walker. At Warden Walker's house, Mr Sir's plan for punishment goes awry. Stanley returns to the digging fields to find that Zero has finished digging his hole for him. Zero claims he did so because he was being wrongfully punished. Stanley decides to finally make good on Zero request to learn to read.
Dehydration makes Stanley hallucinate, piecing together the history of the town. Zero opens up about his past and Stanley is confronted by the disparity between their lives. On the digging field, Stanley and Zero are bullied about their mutual agreement. Zero comes to Stanley's rescue during a fight. Warden Walker bans Stanley and Zero's reading lessons. Zero escapes and Warden Walker puts guards on all water sources. It becomes apparent digging holes for character is not the only reason.
Stanley's family story and the history of Green Lake are discovered to have parallels with present events. Stanley sets out to find Hector "Zero", finding him hiding under an overturned boat called Mary Lou. Zero offers him some "bloosh", a familiar peaches syrup from the past. They notice a mountain peak that looks suspiciously like the God's Thumb rock formation from his grandfather's story.
Hector "Zero" gets sick during their climb up God's Thumb's mountain. Stanley carries him to the peak, unwittingly breaking his family curse. Hector and Stanley find an oasis full of sweet onions and fresh water. Hector tells Stanley about the shoes that fell from the sky, Stanley thinks it's fate. Back at camp, Stanley's attorney ruffles some feathers. Stanley and Hector decide to dig one last hole.
"Kissin' Kate" tell Charles "Trout" Walker neither he nor his family will ever find the treasure. At camp, Hector and Stanley find the buried treasure. Warden Walker attempts to take it from them, but Hector reads Stanley's name written across the case. Back at camp, Stanley refuses to leave without Hector and the Camp Green Lake staff are arrested. The palindrome of family histories interlock and the curse on the town is finally broken.
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