Film Review: The Great Gilly Hopkins

Based on a much-loved young-adult novel, this is an unexpectedly enjoyable family film about an unhappy, obnoxious young girl learning important life lessons as she moves from her loving blue-collar foster family to the home of her well-heeled grandmother
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The Great Gilly Hopkins is a surprisingly well-written, directed and acted family film. Darn it, it’s actually engaging. It’s also unexpected in its treatment of foster care, single moms who don’t care for their kids and, most interesting, the connection between a young girl’s welfare and wealth.

Make no mistake. Money is good. So are the trappings of an upper-middle-class life: a spacious, elegant home, access to state-of-the-art technology, owning a horse, and attending a posh private school, despite its stuffy limitations. Now if the child’s benefactor happens to be her grandmother—and she’s one patrician lady (bucks and blood)—isn’t the choice obvious, especially in light of the youngster’s alternative—living with a scrappy, lower-middle-class foster family, warm and embracing though they may be? A more conventional G-rated movie would come down unequivocally on the side of the poor but loving.

Inspired by Katherine Paterson’s award-winning and popular 1978 young-adult novel, and helmed by Stephen Herek, Gilly Hopkins offers a more complex view that subtly makes a statement about class, though it’s certainly not its theme.

Twelve-year-old tomboy Gilly Hopkins (Sophie Nélisse) lies, steals and makes racist comments. She has been dumped into the foster-family system by her narcissistic single mom (Julia Stiles), who would rather party than parent, but that doesn’t stop Gilly from fantasizing about her, remaining convinced that it’s only matter of time before they’re happily reconnected.

No foster family can tolerate Gilly, and she is moved from home to home until she encounters Maime Trotter (played by the always-brilliant Kathy Bates), a big-hearted working-class widow somewhere in Maryland who makes extra money through fostering abused and abandoned children. When Gilly arrives, she is housing a silent little boy, W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), whose wretched history is hinted at by Trotter, who makes it clear she will not tolerate any cruelty towards W.E.

Trotter is a compassionate “mother,” but also capable of tough love and a welcome antidote to the caricatured image of foster moms as brutal and mercenary. Interestingly, screenwriter David Paterson (who happens to be the novelist’s son) updates the 1978 story, bringing it into the contemporary world, thus suggesting that the issues and characters depicted here are still relevant. He also adds a few more racially and ethnically diverse characters.

Gilly is a bully in her new school, is dismissive towards Rajeem (Sammy Pignalosa), a student tutor whose been assigned to help her, and especially unkind to Agnes (Clare Foley), a classmate who desperately wants to befriend her. She immediately clashes with her math/homeroom teacher Ms. Harris (Octavia Spencer, giving a memorable performance as the instructor battling her own demons).

Gilly plans to track down her mother, and before meeting with her hapless social worker Mr. Ellis (Billy Magnussen), she rummages through her file lying on his desk and finds her mother’s address in San Francisco. Within short order, she has stolen money from Trotter and their neighbor, Mr. Randolph (Bill Cobbs), and is ready to head west. At the bus terminal, Gilly is picked up by the police and returned to Trotter, who is very angry but also understanding.

Still not reconciled to staying with her new family, Gilly writes a letter to her mother awash in lies, describing Trotter’s home as filthy and chaotic. She recounts episodes of abuse that never happened. Shortly thereafter, her aforementioned well-heeled grandmother Nonnie Hopkins (Glenn Close) surfaces. Gilly didn’t know she had a grandmother and, as it turns out, Grandma didn’t know about Gilly’s existence either. She has been estranged from her own daughter Courtney (Gilly’s mom) for more than 13 years. In what was an uncharacteristic surge of guilt, Courtney has forwarded Gilly’s despairing letter to her own mother, who arrives at Trotter’s home when (as luck would have it) everyone is sick with the flu and the house is in a state of unspeakable disarray.

Grandma’s abrupt appearance on the scene strains credulity. Still, Close is so convincing as an aloof woman whose actions are shaped by notions of obligation and responsibility that her presence adds some interest and raises all those pesky questions about money and wellbeing, especially when she insists Gilly come live with her. And that’s when Gilly realizes she loves Trotter and doesn’t want to leave.

But it’s too late. The law is on Grandma’s side and Ellis is eager to comply. He’s also questioning Trotter’s qualifications to be a foster mom at all. Thanks to Gilly’s lying letter, Trotter may lose everything and Gilly knows it’s her fault.  

Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say Gilly has been transformed into a mature human being, capable of generosity and sacrifice. She also learns that actions have consequences and that fantasies are just that. She finally accepts the fact that her biological mother is indifferent to her. This single mom is refreshingly devoid of pathos.

The end is bittersweet. Gilly has lost something, though some might say the conclusion is a win-win. Hey, it’s for the whole family, its subtext notwithstanding.

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