There are books from our youth that made profound impacts on all of us. Works from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia emphasized the grand scope in which riveting stories with rich characters and solid life lessons could be told. On a smaller, perhaps even more targeted scale, Ann M. Martin’s The Babysitters Club and Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series did this for young women. More singular were the tales from author Katherine Paterson – fundamental slice-of-life coming-of-agers where emotions are earned and tears are plentiful. While the cinematic adaptation of her novel BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA was a lavish studio affair, THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS is less so – but its emotional magnitude hasn’t been lessened. This should click not only with its target tween audience, but also adults, who’ll feel a lump in their throats by movie’s end.
Twelve-year-old Galadriel “Gilly” Hopkins (Sophie Nélisse) has spent most of her life being shuffled from one foster home to another. She’s more than just a rough-aroundthe-edges troublemaker. Gilly’s rude, mean and all-around nasty, but that’s really just a smoke screen so she doesn’t get hurt by anyone. However, things begin to change when she’s sent to live with Mamie Trotter (Kathy Bates) and W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), Mrs. Trotter’s younger, learning disabled charge. After her initial shenanigans fail to get her sent away, Gilly devises a scheme to find and reunite with her estranged mother Courtney (Julia Stiles). But it’s not gonna be easy – especially if Mrs. Trotter has anything to do with it, because she doesn’t give up on anyone.
What this movie really comes down to is how the narrative hits audiences – and it does so in a modest amount. It’s a genuinely sweet story that gently tugs on the heartstrings. It also houses Bates’ impression of a “200 pound lovesick chicken.” If that’s not a selling point, I don’t know what is to you people. Lessons about looking deeper instead of passing quick judgements are good. Even more valuable are the situations that show the repercussions and consequences of Gilly’s selfish, impulsive actions. The author’s son, David (who also adapted TERABITHIA), takes great care in earning our emotions through most of these richly drawn characters. There’s a sufficient balance of subtlety and nuance to go along with Gilly’s overt actions. Nevertheless, not every character is drawn with the same craft and care as those in Gilly’s immediate circle. Scenes with plucky “friend” Agnes (Clare Foley) feel rushed with virtually no motivation as to why Agnes keeps trying to make fetch happen with Gilly. And the stuff with Miss Harris (Octavia Spencer) lands with a dull thud.
Director Stephen Herek knows how to reach the intended audience, having done so with me in the late 80’s/ early 90’s with BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD and THE MIGHTY DUCKS. He’s also capable of crafting an inspirational story (like MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS and ROCK STAR), but he goes painfully low-rent with his execution in GILLY. Though this isn’t necessarily a story that needs hyper-stylization or an auteur’s eye, a few sequences are handicapped by distractingly ham-handed qualities. There’s little imagination infused into Gilly’s fantasy sequence when her glamorous mom whisks her away in a limo. When Gilly and W.E. eavesdrop from a staircase, the staging doesn’t have them hidden – yet the adults act as if they were. Noticeably terrible green screen work when Gilly is in the car with her grandmother Noni (Glenn Close) stands out like a sore thumb. If budget is an issue, perhaps that scene should be set elsewhere.
Despite a handful of mixed bag makings, this film has a scrappy lovability built in that’s irrefutable. Much like the titular heroine herself, you can’t help but like it, even when it’s not performing entirely up to expectation.
3.5 out of 5
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS is now playing in theaters and via VOD.