Bumped from one foster home after another, fiendishly smart Gilly Hopkins (Sophie Nélisse) has outwitted every family she lived with. In an effort to escape her loving, endlessly patient new foster mother Maime Trotter (Kathy Bates), Gilly concocts a daring plan she believes will finally bring her long-lost mother (Julia Stiles) to her rescue. But when the ploy blows up in Gilly's face it threatens to ruin the only chance she has ever had to be part of a real family.
Foster parents tend to get a bad rap in movies. More often than not they are crudely caricatured as fairytale villains. Happily The Great Gilly Hopkins goes some way towards redressing the balance. Adapted from a lesser known though award-winning book written by Bridge to Terabithia (2007) author Katherine Paterson - whose son playwrite David Paterson produces and scripts - the film tackles themes and centres on a troubled young protagonist similar to the CBBC series The Story of Tracy Beaker created by British children's writer Jacqueline Wilson. Rising French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse builds on the promise shown in The Book Thief (2003), morphing from the angelic Liesel into a surly, gum-chewing, wise-cracking, self-destructive delinquent. She does not entirely shed her accent but nevertheless delivers a thoughtful, carefully nuanced performance that goes a long way towards making Gilly a compelling lead.
Gilly is not an easy kid to like but that is entirely the point. She lies, cheats, bullies and steals and uses her sharp mind to manipulate people that only want the best for her. Yet she is also wounded and vulnerable and, like so many abandoned children faced with similar emotions, lashes out at everyone in sight. It takes the combined efforts of dedicated foster mom Trotter and schoolteacher Miss Harris (Octavia Spencer) to break down those walls, through tenderness, discipline and a whole lot of patience. A potentially dark and dubious moment arises when Gilly tries to get herself expelled from school by penning a racist letter to Miss Harris. Yet the scene plays out as an insightful, touching confrontation between the two.
As often with Paterson, art provides the key to unlocking humanity buried within a troubled soul. Here kindly blind neighbour Mr. Randolph (Bill Cobbs) introduces Gilly to poetry which slowly opens her eyes to the realization she is not the only wounded, vulnerable person in the world. Instead of merely manipulating her peers, she grows increasingly kind and caring towards her sickly foster brother W.E. (Zachary Hernandez), friendship-starved Agnes (Clare Foley, latterly the young Poison Ivy on TV's Gotham) and studious tutor Rajeem (Sammy Pignalosa). Stephen Herek, the director behind Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), does not make this story especially cinematic. In many ways The Great Gilly Hopkins comes across like a high quality made-for-TV movie. However the film retains the gentle humanity inherent in Paterson's original book. For all its heartwarming qualities to its great credit the film does not sugar-coat the unstable life of a foster child. Just when Gilly seems to have got her life together along comes her long-lost grandmother (Glenn Close) who misunderstands her situation. Before long poor Gilly has to start all over again.
Throughout a series of low-key but affecting twists and turns, The Great Gilly Hopkins spins an engaging, gently humane story meditating on the theme that nobody's life is ever perfect. We all have our battle scars and while they may not disappear entirely they do heal. All it takes is a little time and kindness.