[Screen It]

(2010) (Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell) (R)

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Drama: A woman spends nearly two decades going back to school to get her law degree so that she can try to get her brother out of prison for a murder she knows he didn't commit.
It's the 1980s and siblings Betty Anne Waters (HILARY SWANK) and Kenny Waters (SAM ROCKWELL) have always had a special bond due in part to having grown up in various foster homes thanks to a decidedly less than good mom. Now young adults, Betty Anne has matured more than her brother who's no stranger to run-ins with the law. That reputation eventually comes around to haunt him as Ayer, Massachusetts police officer Nancy Taylor (MELISSA LEO) arrests him on suspicion for the brutal murder of a local woman in 1980.

Although he's released, two years later he's arrested again for that crime and then convicted to serve the rest of his life in prison, thanks to testimony by the mother of his young child along with his lover, Roseanna Perry (JULIETTE LEWIS). Kenny claims he's innocent, but no one believes him. That is, except for Betty Anne who decides the only way for her to get him out is to attend and then graduate from college and then law school, and then pass the bar in order to become his lawyer.

That commitment eventually causes her husband, Rick (LOREN DEAN), to leave her, while their kids, Richard (CONOR DONOVAN) and Ben (OWEN CAMPBELL) eventually have enough moments of disappointment with their mom that they decide to move in with their dad. Yet, Betty Anne continues on her quest, helped by fellow law school student Abra Rice (MINNIE DRIVER) and eventually Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck (PETER GALLAGHER) who states they might be able to do something if DNA samples can be recovered.

As Betty Anne tries to do just that -- despite the many years that have passed since the initial trial -- and hopes to convince her now young adult niece, Mandy (ARI GRAYNOR), that her father is not the murderer she's been led to believe, she must overcome various setbacks that threaten to derail her effort to prove her brother's innocence.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I can't imagine someone trying to learn English as a second language. Beyond the non-standardized rules about how certain words should be conjugated and how others should have similar pronunciations based on the same letters used but don't, there's the fact that a single word can have different meanings depending on the context and whether it's used as a noun, verb or adjective.

Take, for instance, the word conviction. In terms of the legal and criminal systems, it refers to a final judgment of guilt in a criminal case as well as the imposed punishment. But it can also mean an unshakable resolve and belief in something or someone. Both meanings are put into play in the movie "Conviction," a well-intentioned and decently acted but conventional and seemingly truncated highlight reel of an amazing true-life story.

It's about Betty Anne Waters, a mom who spent 18 years of her life trying to prove the innocence of her brother regarding a 1980 murder he says he didn't commit. What makes it remarkable is that she didn't simply hire a legal team to fight the good fight for her and her sibling. Instead, she went from having just a GED to attending college and then law school to become his lawyer. And after all of that, she still had obstacles to overcome to prove her brother's innocence and then convince the authorities to release him from prison.

As the leads, Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell are terrific, and thankfully avoid the histrionics and melodrama that easily could have taken over their performances or, at minimum, added some degree of artificiality or distraction to their work. Supporting performances from the likes of Minnie Driver (as a fellow law school student), Juliette Lewis (as a white trash woman who was pivotal in the conviction and could be just as important in the overturning of that), Peter Gallagher (as a legal advocate for the wrongly convicted), and Conor Donovan and Owen Campbell (playing the do-gooder's boys) are also good.

Yet, the film rarely if ever emotionally connected with me. Some of that could obviously be due to the fact that we've seen this sort of underdog legal story countless times before, meaning few if any surprises are in store in terms of complications, setbacks and general obstacles. But the best of those have gotten to me and had yours truly rooting for the protagonist to succeed. Perhaps some of those worked better in terms of engagement because they contained a ticking deadline looming over the quest, where no such urgent rush is present here.

Then there's the fact that 18 years is a lot of time to condense into a 107-some minute movie, meaning a certain episodic quality would be hard to avoid. The filmmakers -- director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray -- don't help matters by occasionally throwing in flashbacks to the siblings as poor and mistreated kids who were no strangers to run-ins with the law.

Such footage is obviously present to stress the adversity-based bond between the brother and sister, and make us both understand and sympathize how their early days affected their later and current ones. But such flashbacks ultimately end up interrupting the narrative flow of the main story, as does some unnecessary jumping around through more recent times (involving the murder, the first arrest, the suspect's mischievous but violent prone nature, etc.). I don't mind non-linear storytelling, but Goldwyn doesn't do enough with that here to justify its use.

With all of that extra footage, the protagonist's journey ends up feeling somewhat shortchanged. For instance, we only see the court conviction and not the trial (and thus don't get the needed sense that the accused was railroaded or subjected to false testimony, etc.), while the decision for Betty Anne to begin her schooling journey occurs in a heartbeat and without much contemplation for the audience to witness.

Yes, it stems from her brother's attempted suicide in prison so that's her catalyst, but her "I'm going to become his lawyer and get him out" moment (and all of the related anguish, self-doubt and such, along with the expected viewer questions) is barely addressed. In short, we don't see her justification for choosing her route over, oh I don't know, hiring better lawyers (which would certainly seem to be cheaper and faster in the long run than attending college, law school, passing the bar and such).

I know, I realize some of that's nitpicky in nature, but I think such omissions, glossing-over and/or compression of pivotal elements and moments steals some of the film's thunder. While a heaping of melodrama would have added some much needed emotion to the proceedings, that would have put it into the realm of most any similar Lifetime or related cable movie. Nevertheless, the film simply doesn't feel quite ready for the big screen.

Thankfully, the strong performances make it easy to watch. I just wish the filmmakers had the conviction to make "Conviction" into a truly great film. In the end, it feels like Oscar bait without enough on the hook to draw us in and make us bite unconditionally. Accordingly, the film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 20, 2010 / Posted October 22, 2010

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