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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Great Gilly Hopkins is based on Katherine Paterson's classic 1978 middle-grade novel about an unfriendly foster kid who finally opens up to others after being placed with a devout older woman who's already fostering a little boy. Gilly has a harsh tongue and uses plenty of mild insults, as well as tween swears ("hell," "freakin," "get the hell out," etc.). And she isn’t afraid to get in the face of or even push other kids and/or adults. Once she writes a letter lying about her foster home; in another letter, she makes racist remarks to her black teacher. But thanks to empathy and communication, Gilly's character grows and changes in positive ways over the course of the story. This is ultimately a story about how family is more than blood and how even the loneliest, hardest-to-like person can find a place to belong.
What's the story?
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS is based on Katherine Paterson's classic 1978 book about 12-year-old Galadriel "Gilly" Hopkins (Sophie Nelisse). A foster kid who's been in and out of lots of places, Gilly is now put in yet another home, this time under the care of kindly, devout Mrs. Trotter (Kathy Bates). Trotter has another foster child, the young W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), and a good friend and neighbor, Mr. Randolph (Bill Cobbs), who's blind. Despite being a strong student, Gilly alienates others, is unfair to her new foster family, and obsesses over reuniting with her birth mother (Julia Stiles). And then, just as Gilly begins to settle in and warm up to Trotter, W.E., and Mr. Randolph, someone arrives who changes everything.
Is it any good?
Thanks to a faithful script by David Paterson, the book author's son, this adaptation stays true to the spirit of the original, with solid performances that make Gilly's evolution believable. Nelisse, best known for her starring role in The Book Thief, does look a bit old to play Gilly, but she does a great job making her character both fragile and unfriendly, which makes her difficult to like at first. But this is as it should be, since abandoned foster kids can't all be as sweet as Little Orphan Annie. The young actress' expressive face makes it clear that the only person she needs or wants is her birth mother, whom she daydreams about and hopes will come rescue her.
Bates and Cobbs are fabulously cast as Trotter and Mr. Randolph. Both patiently show Gilly the love and respect she's been lacking for most of her life. Their performances, along with those of Octavia Spencer as Miss Harris and Glenn Close as Nonnie, are notably good. Every now and then, the dialogue between the kids feels a bit stiff, but the acting is good enough to overcome some small flaws. And, of course, since the screenwriter is the son of the source book's author, it's clear (like with Judy Blume's Tiger Eyes) that someone who loves the story helped make The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly isn't an easy main character to love, but that's part of her appeal -- she's utterly human. She's had more tragedy than most kids can understand, and yet she grows, heals, and loves.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about who the role models are in The Great Gilly Hopkins. How can you tell? What makes them role models?
What does Gilly learn about the meaning of family in the movie?
What does the movie have to say about bullying?
If you've read the book: Do you think the movie keeps to the spirit of the story? What changes make sense? What, if anything, do you miss from the book?
- In theaters: October 7, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: December 6, 2016
- Cast: Kathy Bates, Sophie Nelisse, Bill Cobbs
- Director: Stephen Herek
- Studio: Picturehouse
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Book characters
- Character strengths: Communication, Empathy
- Run time: 99 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic material and language
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal
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