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The Great Gilly Hopkins (2016) (1 Viewer)

Adam Lenhardt

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I know there were a lot of people here who, like me, were big fans of Disney's 2007 adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia, so I wanted to brings some attention to this adaptation of another Katherine Paterson children's novel. Her son wrote the screenplays for both movies.

A lower budgeted film, this one went straight to On Demand last October and the cinema chains refused to carry it as a result. But it has an even better cast: Kathy Bates, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Close, Bill Cobbs, Billy Magnussen and Julia Stiles, with Sophie Nélisse from The Book Thief in the title role.

It was recently added to Netflix, which is where I found it. I gave a shot because it triggered something in my memory: Back in grade school, I constantly ran into the cover for the book, with the giant gum bubble obscuring the title character's face and the embossed silver Newbery Medal, but never got around to reading it.

The movie is a bit of a strange beast: the production design, set decoration, and costumes all point to it being set in the present day, but there's a simplicity and kindness to this world that feels very apart from the present moment, even though darkness always seems to be lingering on the edges. Until the last act of the movie it feels more like it takes place sometime between the seventies and early nineties, with no computers and no cellphones and classrooms with chalkboards and paper handouts and big heavy hardcover textbooks. When the modern world does creep in toward the end, it's almost jarring.

The screenplay spells things out a little too much at times, much like the books of my childhood often did, and especially early on errs toward being a little too on the nose. But otherwise, it's excellent with characters full of life and complexity and history, who change and grow and shape each other. The portrayal of the foster care system is softer and gentler than the reality, but far more realistic than you'd expect for a children's movie. And while Kathy Bates’s Trotter is a very good foster parent, it’s clear that every one of these characters has a great deal of pain in the rear view mirror. Like Bridge to Terabithia, this film foregoes the traditional happy ending, and leaves us with something richer and more valuable instead. David L. Paterson does his mother proud by again crafting an adaptation of her work that successfully presents some very real subject matter in a kid-palatable way.

He and director Stephen Herek, who directed some of my favorite family films of the nineties, get a lot of help from the embarrassment of riches that is this cast.

Gilly Hopkins spends the bulk of the film being willfully unlikable and doing some pretty abhorrent things. If Sophie Nélisse hadn't conveyed the desperation and vulnerability underlying her anger and aloofness, you'd never care what happens to her. She also has modulate a very gradual transformation of degrees, with changes that happen so slowly you barely notice them, but that result in completely different kind of performance – with different body language and emotional reactions – by the end of the film than we saw at the beginning.

As embodied by a lesser actress, Trotter could have felt like a very broadly-drawn caricature. But Kathy Bates is incredible in the other performance the film lives and dies on, creating a human being who is incredibly patient and incredibly loving and incredibly Christian but never naïve or sanctimonious.

I loved Bill Cobbs on NBC's short-lived “Go On,” and he imbues his character her with such depth of feeling and empathy. Gilly is really smart, and quite literate. His character, Mr. Randolph, see that in her and inspires her to love the things he loves. He never speaks down to her, never condescends to her. He sees her as she is and accepts her without judgment.

Octavia Spencer is magnificent as Gilly's teacher, making some performance choices that confounded my expectations in the best way. There is one scene, in particular, where Gilly has done something incredibly ugly to try and get under her skin, that could have easily gone in a preachy or after-school-special-esque direction. But the way Spencer plays it, it never feels anything less than real and organic and specific to these two characters and their relationship with each other.

Glenn Close had a very difficult task, having to play a very repressed WASPish woman who conveyed love and warmth in an entirely different way than Kathy Bates did. She pulled it off wonderfully. My favorite of her post-“Damages” performances.

Billy Magnussen is a ridiculously handsome social worker, but he does a good job walking the narrow tightrope of caring about Gilly but not believing in her. Julia Stiles has less than five minutes of screen time, but her character hangs over the entire film. To say any more would be a spoiler, but suffice to say she does exactly what the film requires of her, and she does it unflinchingly.

Even the supporting kids are perfect for what they need to do. I always found Clare Foley kind of flat as the original Ivy on “Gotham”, but she’s wonderful here as Gilly’s motormouthed classmate who slowly wears down her guard. And Zachary Hernandez is remarkable at times in this as William Ernest, triggering a visceral reaction in me at a few points. Gilly’s reaction to foster care has been to keep her walls up and avoid emotional attachments. But as played by Hernandez, there was almost certainly horrific abuse in William Ernest's past – either from his birth parents before they lost custody, or from one of the foster families that preceded Trotter.

All in all, it wasn’t quite as good of a movie as Bridge to Terabithia, but it’s still in the top tier of family films for me. It's always nice to encounter stories that celebrate and admire the best of us, when the world too often celebrates and rewards he worst of us. If you subscribe to Netflix, I definitely recommend checking it out. Unfortunately, it’s DVD only on home video, though Vudu and iTunes do have digitial HD versions for sale.
 

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