'The Great Gilly Hopkins': Film Review

This slight Dickensian tale has its moments, mostly provided by the veteran actresses.

Kathy Bates, Glenn Close and Octavia Spencer star in this adaptation of Katherine Paterson's acclaimed 1978 YA novel.

Such reliable pros as Kathy Bates, Glenn Close and Octavia Spencer generously lend their talents to The Great Gilly Hopkins, Stephen Herek's screen adaptation of Katherine Paterson's acclaimed 1978 young adult novel. This Dickensian tale of a rebellious 12-year-old foster child desperate to reunite with her biological mother has a decided old-fashioned quality that could make it a tough sit for its tween target audience, not to mention adults attracted by the starry cast. Being given a limited theatrical release, the pic should garner more attention in home video formats.

Sophie Nelisse plays the spunky title character, abandoned by her self-obsessed mother Courtney (Julia Stiles) and shepherded by a social worker (Billy Magnussen) through a series of foster homes. At the story's beginning she finds herself living in the Maryland home of Christian-minded widow Mamie Trotter (Bates), along with W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), a 7-year-old boy who mostly stays silent.

Deeply unhappy in her new environment, Gilly lashes out, frequently using racial and ethnic slurs, at everyone around her, including her new classmates and ever-patient homeroom teacher (Spencer). When she receives a postcard from her mother, Gilly decides to travel cross-country to see her, stealing money from a kindly, legally blind neighbor (Bill Hobbs) to finance the trip.

Things don't go as planned, but not long afterwards Gilly's life is disrupted yet again by the unexpected arrival of her rich grandmother Nonnie (Close), who only recently discovered Gilly's existence. The regal, self-possessed Nonnie wants to take Gilly home to live with her in her palatial estate, but by then the little girl has come to embrace her foster family.

Scripted by David Paterson, the original novelist's son, the film effectively strikes the required emotional notes, although without much cinematic flair. The alternately farcical and melodramatic tones never fully cohere, and the title character is so abrasive that it's hard to muster much sympathy for her. Still, The Great Gilly Hopkins has its enjoyable moments — Bates' entertaining, scenery-chewing turn providing many of them — and its themes are refreshingly complex for a film targeted to kids.   

Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Production: Arcady Bay Entertainment
Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Kathy Bates, Bill Cobbs, Julia Stiles, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Close, Clare Foley, Zachary Hernandez, Billy Magnussen
Director: Stephen Herek
Screenwriter: David Paterson
Producers: Brian Kennedy, David Paterson, John Paterson, William Teitler
Executive producers: Chip Flaherty, Peyton Kay, William Kay, Eve Schoukroun
Director of photography: David M. Dunlap
Production designer: Ola Maslik
Editor: David Leonard
Costume designer: Meghan Kasperlik
Composer: Mark Isham
Casting: Avy Kaufman

Rated PG, 99 minutes