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Twelve-year-old Gilly Hopkins (Sophie Nélisse) is a stubborn child who has spent her whole life in foster homes and starts the story begrudgingly being placed her latest, that of Maime Trotter (Kathy Bates), a deeply-religious, warm-hearted woman with a young boy also in her care. Gilly’s interminably awful right from the start, looking to establish herself as independent, being despicable in nearly every conceivable way to anyone in her path. At her new school, she picks fights and is belligerent to kids who try to get close. All she cares about is hoping to connect with her mother (Julia Stiles), whom she has never met, and to do that, she must be as mean as possible and as insufferable as she can.
Of course, it’s all a charade as Gilly is by nature a nice girl who is pre-dispositioned to be ornery. Yet, under the spell of Trotter and their neighbor, the elderly, blind man Mr. Randolph (Bill Cobbs), she spoils and we are witness to what is first her manipulations to gain trust for personal reasons but what quickly becomes something else altogether.
Directed by Stephen Herek, The Great Gilly Hopkins is based on the 1978 Katherine Paterson children’s book of the same name. A family film through and through, all the makings are here, and the filmmakers have assembled a strong cast in bringing it together. Nélisse is a powerful young presence, playing a slightly disheveled, aggressively unhappy girl who is quite convincing as Gilly, a character that walks a very thin line. She is designed to be off-putting at first, but Nélisse handles her well, keeping dignified and honest, something few characters in the genre seem able to claim. Bates also is terrific, rosey-faced and impassioned by her part in Gilly’s life, she is a rock of support. Cobbs too shines in a touching performance that has been a trademark of his career.
Adapting a young adult book to the theater has proven an uneven effort for studios and once again, Gilly serves as an example where not all things translate well from page to screen. There are wild swings from drama to comedy that don’t always work, and most moments at the school don’t help sell the story’s larger emotional tone (a scene involving an awkward attempt to elicit racial tension with Gilly’s teacher Ms Harris, played well by Octavia Spencer, doesn’t work), but the message resonates well enough through these lapses to give its ending the appropriate punch.
Quality family films that educate as much as entertain are hard to come by, most populated with broad stereotypes and clichés. The Great Gilly Hopkins may not dig as deep as it hopes too, but it does challenge young viewers and poses some powerful questions. It reaches for the right emotions as it comes to its close, and more importantly, feels earned. A good choice for family viewing.
Director: Stephen Herek
Writers: Katherine Paterson (based upon the novel), David Paterson
Stars: Sophie Nélisse, Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Bill Cobbs
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Family