In her dream world, 12-year-old Gilly (Sophie Nélisse) yearns for the maternal love that she never had by imagining herself playing dress up with her estranged mother, Courtney (Julia Stiles), walking the red carpet and being swarmed by the paparazzi before entering their limousine. In her waking life, though, Gilly is schlepped from one foster home to the next and learns not to get close to anybody—except to challenge the authority of adults and bully kids her own age. That is, until she finds a foster home that makes her want to stay: a Christian household run by no-nonsense Maime Trotter (Kathy Bates). The Great Gilly Hopkins’s eponymous heroine grows so fond of the tough love she gets from Trotter that she refuses to leave when her wealthy biological grandmother, Nonnie (Glenn Close), finally comes to take her away.
Initially, Stephen Herek’s insufferably schmaltzy film takes up the idea of the constantly uprooted child, the recent premise of films such as Don’t Call Me Son and Standing Tall, as though it were going to tell something new. Or, at least, that’s what the caliber of the cast seems to suggest. Instead, we’re offered a Disney-fied tale where every scene is suffocated by an intrusive score that tells us with bludgeoning precision whether the main point of said scene is its sense of humor, sadness, adventure, or mere lightheartedness. The Great Gilly Hopkins never executes its narrative fantastically enough for its triteness to be forgiven, forgotten, or excused as “a film for children.” At the same time, it’s too infantile to be taken seriously.
It’s when Nonnie shows up to claim Gilly and bring the girl to a swanky ranch that things go really south and one may start to feel bad for the film, or rather, its actors. To watch Close enter the frame for the first time is to cringe for the safeguarding of her legend; her face teems with a flawlessly controlled gravitas that’s completely at odds with the film’s ordinariness. Once Gilly arrives at her grandmother’s mansion and is surrounded by thoroughbreds running around to the sound of classical music, Gilly feels predictably alienated, and audiences are forced to watch Close utter the most hackneyed of dialogue in the most hackneyed of scenarios, and all with a straight face. In a testament to her genius, at least, she can still do it, and ever so masterfully.