You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Great Gilly Hopkins’

Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse carries this sturdy children's novel adaptation from the author of 'Bridge to Terabithia.'

Sophie Nélisse, Kathy Bates, Julia Stiles, Bill Cobbs, Billy Magnussen, Octavia Spencer, Zachary Hernandez, Clare Foley.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1226766/

Gilly Hopkins is 12 years old. Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse is not (she’s four years older), but in many ways, that’s ultimately to the advantage of director Stephen Herek’s respectful adaptation of the 1979 National Book Award-winning kid-lit classic “The Great Gilly Hopkins,” in which a kid who’s been passed from foster home to foster home reluctantly warms to the evangelical old “hippo” (Kathy Bates) who smothers her with unconditional love.

By casting an actress a bit older than Gilly was on the page, Herek factors in the way naturally aspirational younger moviegoers tend to prefer identifying with characters a bit older than themselves (the way no 17-year-old would be caught dead reading Seventeen magazine, which targets kids in the 12-16 range). So, on one hand, Nélisse is the right choice to help to capture audiences who might benefit most from the movie’s message — in a phrase, “Life ain’t supposed to be nuthin’, ’cept maybe tough” — while on the other, she is, quite simply, the best screen actress of her generation.

First seen in “Monsieur Lazhar,” the devastating classroom-trauma drama for which she won a Canadian Academy Award, Nélisse went on to earn international attention as the star of “The Book Thief,” a movie that had no excuse to be as dull as it was given its spectacular, Anne Frank-esque wartime backdrop. Whereas those movies both seem incredibly demanding on the surface, especially considering everything the characters face, “The Great Gilly Hopkins” must actually have posed a far more difficult challenge, as Nélisse has to convince us that she really is the surly, sarcastic, and all-around abrasive young lady she plays here. If it felt like acting, even for a second, the whole thing would shatter, but instead, anyone who hadn’t seen her relatively reserved earlier roles could be excused for wondering where the director managed to find such a perfectly unpleasant young lady.

From this perpetual gum-chewer’s disdainful sneer to the way she stands off against a cluster of schoolyard bullies, Nélisse’s Gilly is one tough cookie, and many a foster parent would reach their limit long before either Mamie Trotter (Bates) or her teacher Ms. Harris (Octavia Spencer) does. For the adults in the audience, learning to let Gilly into your heart is the film’s best lesson, while kids will be watching from the scowling young lady’s perspective, seeing this as a temporary arrangement — “stuck in another place where I hate everybody” — until such time as she can be reunited with her glamorous birth mother (Julia Stiles, first seen swarmed by paparazzi in Gilly’s fantasy sequences).

Delivering her lines in a way that belies the character’s lack of book-learning, Bates plays Trotter with nary a trace of vanity, her hair looking wiry and her skin blotchy as the sort of over-demonstrative Christian mother who wants to hug everything in sight. And yet, she’s also firm when the situation calls for it — as when Gilly implies that William Earnest (Zachary Hernandez), the silent little boy sharing the house with them, is a “retard.” For the fiercely intelligent but always angry Gilly, who’s quick to see the worst in any situation, her new arrangement is particularly challenging, and she barely manages to be polite to her housemates or the blind old man (Bill Cobbs) who comes over for dinner, plotting to steal enough cash that she can run away and reunite with her mother, whose San Francisco address she found by snooping in her confidential case file.

There’s an entire category of children’s literature that insists on showing kids on their best behavior, didactically hoping it will rub off on readers. The great thing about all of “The Great Gilly Hopkins” author Karen Paterson’s books is the way she refused to talk down to kids, creating imperfect (and in Gilly’s case, downright insolent) characters with realistic flaws, who must face not only the impact of their actions, but the ways in which life can be fundamentally unfair. Like her best-known novel “Bridge to Terabithia,” which deals with aspects of faith and losing a friend, “The Great Gilly Hopkins” was adapted for the screen by Paterson’s son David, who may not be the most elegant dramatist, but is careful to preserve those rough-around-the-edges qualities that make these characters seem so alive — their “battle scars,” as it were.

Gilly makes a series of big mistakes over the course of the film (a racist poem written to Ms. Harris is especially cruel), but the clincher has irreversible consequences. Writing a letter full of lies about her foster situation, she manages to get her wish — the letter falls into the hands of her ridiculously wealthy grandma Nonnie (Glenn Close, in ultra-proper “The World According to Garp” mode), who arranges for Gilly to meet her birth mother — and yet, that reunion doesn’t go at all how Gilly imagined (and will come as quite the surprise to those who’ve seen Stiles looking lovely as recently as “Jason Bourne”).

There’s an overall clumsiness to “The Great Gilly Hopkins” that comes as somewhat surprising from Herek, who has made directed some major studio hits in his day (including “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “101 Dalmations”). Herek’s career was on a certain trajectory, until he stumbled with 2002’s Angelina Jolie misfire “Life of Something Like It,” and yet he brings an integrity to this project, getting terrific performances from the entire cast, both the older pros (from whom we’d expect it) and the young newcomers. Among Trotter’s pearls of wisdom is the line, “Nobody likes perfect,” and while uneven in places, “The Great Gilly Hopkins” works because it boasts an actress tough enough for the title role.

Film Review: 'The Great Gilly Hopkins'

Reviewed at Lionsgate screening room, Santa Monica, Sept. 26, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: A Lionsgate Premiere release of a Lionsgate presentation, in association with Lativer Films, of a William Teitler/Brian Kennedy production, in association with Arcady Bay Entertainment. Producers: David Paterson, John Paterson, William Teitler, Brian Kennedy. Executive producers: William Kay, Robert Berney.

Crew: Director: Stephen Herek. Screenplay: David Paterson, based on the book by Karen Paterson. Camera (color, widescreen): David Dunlap. Editor: David Leonard.

With: Sophie Nélisse, Kathy Bates, Julia Stiles, Bill Cobbs, Billy Magnussen, Octavia Spencer, Zachary Hernandez, Clare Foley.

More Film

  • FilmNation logo

    FilmNation Promotes Ashley Fox, Brad Zimmerman to SVP of Production (EXCLUSIVE)

    FilmNation Entertainment, the independent studio behind “Arrival” and “Room,” has promoted Ashley Fox and Brad Zimmerman to senior VPs of production. The pair will source and develop material that can be transformed into movies and will oversee film productions on behalf of the company. They will continue to report to Ben Browning, FilmNation’s president of [...]

  • Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses after

    Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Accuses 'I Love You, Berlin' Producers of Censorship

    The executive producer of anthology film “Berlin, I Love You” is engaged in a war of words with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose contribution to the movie was left on the cutting-room floor. Ai contends that the segment he shot for “Berlin, I Love You” was axed by the producers for political reasons, out [...]

  • Oscars Nominees Popular Movies

    Oscar Best Picture Race Dominated by Box Office Winners

    This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ ill-fated popular film Oscar category could have just as easily been dubbed “best picture.” That’s because the crop of movies vying to take home the top prize represents the highest-grossing group of best picture nominees in nearly a decade. The eight films in the category [...]

  • Isabela Moner Marcel Ruiz Rosa Salazar

    Variety Announces 10 Latinxs to Watch 2019

    Variety has announced this year’s 10 Latinxs to Watch, and has also selected the Miami Film Festival as a partner for the annual celebration of promising talent in the Latino community that will include a panel and film screenings. This year’s honorees are Isabela Moner (“Dora the Explorer”), Rosa Salazar (“Alita: Battle Angel,” “Bird Box”), [...]

  • New Regency Launches U.K.-Based International TV

    New Regency Launches International TV Division With Scott Free Alum Ed Rubin

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” co-producer New Regency has launched a London-based international TV division, recruiting former Scott Free exec Ed Rubin to run the new operation and hiring Emma Broughton from The Ink Factory (“The Night Manager”) as head of scripted. New Regency produced “The Revenant,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.” It recently opened up shop [...]

  • Kate Bosworth'Nona' film premiere, New York,

    Kate Bosworth Helps Launch Campaign for Female Filmmakers

    In her 20-year career in Hollywood, Kate Bosworth has starred in blockbusters like “Superman Returns” as well as indie darlings like 2014’s “Still Alice.” But the actress has always had a desire to get more involved from the ground up. Now, she is partnering with Women In Film and Chloe Wine Collection to launch the [...]

  • Black Panther

    'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Westworld' Among Costume Designers Guild Winners

    “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” walked away with top honors at the 21st annual Costume Designers Guild Awards Tuesday night, the final industry guild show before the Oscars on Feb. 24. “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are up for the Oscar this year, along with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mary Poppins [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content