Grumpiness, Gumption, and Gratitude | “The Great Gilly Hopkins” Movie Review

The film remarkably retains the book’s essence, even though the main character is a few years older on screen, as played by Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse.
Kathy Bates and Sophie Nélisse in The Great Gill Hopkins (Photos: Lionsgate Premiere)

Kathy Bates and Sophie Nélisse in The Great Gilly Hopkins (Photos: Lionsgate Premiere)

An alternative title for the feature film adaptation (finally) of Katherine Paterson’s classic The Great Gilly Hopkins could be The Great Kathy Bates. Though the children’s novel was published in 1978, before Bates’s film career began in earnest in the early 1980s, it’s as though Paterson had the actress in mind when she wrote Maime Trotter, the Southern, churchgoing, tough lovin’ but ever patient foster mother to an incorrigible 11-year-old, Gilly Hopkins, who has bounced from foster homes all of her young life. When Trotter raises her arched eyebrows, you know she means business. Gilly’s sullen, dismissive attitude toward all forms of authority might have something to do with her peripatetic track record. She tilts her face downward and barely looks Trotter in the eye when first introduced. At her new school, she’s determined to fail, though nothing gets past her teacher, Ms. Harris (Octavia Spencer). She heedlessly—and needlessly—gets in fights with boys and rashly rejects the only classmate who offers an overture of friendship. Instead of giving Trotter and her new foster brother, W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), a chance, she hatches a plan to steal enough cash and hightail it to San Francisco, the last-known address for the birth mother she idealizes. (All she knows of her is based on one photo and postcard.) Gilly’s one tough, Teflon nut to crack, but as Trotter would advise, give her time. The film remarkably retains the book’s essence, even though Gilly is a few years older, as played by Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse. The setting has a timeless quality, not 1970s retro (though there are abundant earth tones in the Trotter home) but not quite in the hip here and now either: there’s not a smartphone in sight. It could take place anytime in the last 20 years. Most importantly, the pace zips along from the get-go, following Paterson’s story line beat by beat, without softening Gilly's defiant disposition. She may not be as mean-spirited or racist as in the book, but she comes close. (The script was written by the author’s son David Paterson, who produced the film along with brother John.) Though it has been released in a limited number of theaters, the film will most likely find its audience in platforms that are more inviting, given the intimacy of the story, video on demand and/or streaming, since it feels more like a made-for-TV movie. The visuals are of the everyday, and the editing jumps abruptly from scene to scene, with a few awkwardly staged moments: not once but twice, a conversation takes place where the participants have no idea that others are in the room nearby. No matter, the focus remains steadfastly on the softening of Gilly—keep a Kleenex at the ready. great-gilly-2

Sophie Nélisse and Glenn Close

If ever the tone turns treacly, a reaction shot of Gilly glowering acts as an antidote. Nélisse appropriately comes across as petulant, restless, and angry, all without an eye roll.The acting among the juvenile cast is often transparent— they indicate exactly what they think and want—so it should be no surprise that the bar raises considerably when Bates is on screen, joined by Bill Cobbs as the blind neighbor, Mr. Randolph, and Glenn Close as Gilly's grandmother, Nonnie, who suddenly surfaces in her granddaughter's life. (Sadly, Bates and Close only share brief moments together.) The movie is among the more successful no-frills, stripped down adaptations of middle grade lit, joining a select group that includes Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (also adapted by David Paterson), K.L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World, and Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. Directed by Stephen Herek 99 min. Rated PG

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