Film Review – Conviction

Conviction (M)

Directed by: Tony Goldwyn

Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis

Three and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

If the plot for Conviction was not inspired by real events, I would have had a hard time accepting the proceedings. Are audiences supposed to believe that a small town single mother from a white trash background managed to get her high school diploma, entry into university, then law school and pass the bar exam to represent one single client? Well, you better believe it, because it did happen.

If scripted from a Hollywood screenwriter’s overactive imagination, it would have been tough to convince an audience to go along with it. It was a continuous process that lasted around 15 years – a long time for someone to stay focussed and determined. But like Aron Ralston’s story depicted in 127 Hours, in which he had to cut his arm off to escape an isolated canyon, the seemingly impossible is actually true.

Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) and Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) were a couple of misfit children who would run amock around town causing havoc and whose mother claimed she was too busy to keep an eye on them. While Betty Anne’s life never amounted to much other than a cute family with a couple of kids, Kenny continued to be a trouble maker.

Most incidents are pinned on him, including the murder of a local elderly woman. Kenny swears he is innocent and  local cop Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) just has it in for him, but evidence begins to point to his guilt. He is eventually convicted of the murder and sent to prison. It seems he will never get out.

Betty Anne, who has always stuck by her brother, makes it her mission to get him out of prison. She gets her GED, goes to college and law school and passes the bar exam to become a lawyer so she can find any way of proving his innocence. The 15 year-long process puts a strain on her life, marriage and relationship with her children, but she does have one ally in her feisty school mate Abra Rice (Minnie Driver).

Films based on a true story have a tendency to be sugar-coated to appeal to the masses. The Blind Side comes immediately to mind. Conviction is not quite as sweet but it is also not as edgy as it could be either. While we see the effect Betty Anne’s actions and narrow-mindedness has on her family, we often don’t feel it. One minute the kids are there, the next they decide to move to their dad’s house. One postponed fishing trip does not feel like enough neglect for their drastic reaction. Sometimes the sense of urgency is curiously lacking.

The timeline jumps around too often and too much time is spent on young Betty Anne and Kenny. Director Tony Goldwyn does not realise how efficiently he has established their bond during the childhood sequences and insists on revisiting them to hammer the point across.

Most of the cast is impeccable with Swank, Rockwell and an almost unrecognisable Juliette Lewis as uber trash in a minor role coming off best. Leo, who has found acclaim for her performance in The Fighter, makes much less of a mark here. Uneven storytelling, several slow spots and clunky double meaning of the title aside, Conviction is nevertheless a fascinating couple of hours about family bonds and determination.

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