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.