"Conviction" is solid but a bit too literal in relating this true-life tale of a sister's determination.
"Conviction" is stranger than fiction. When her troublemaking brother Kenny is imprisoned for murder, Betty Anne Waters gets her high school diploma, puts herself through college and law school, passes the bar and becomes his full-time attorney. While holding things together as a single mom and part-time bar manager, mind you. If you made it up, no one would believe you.
To the extent that Tony Goldwyn's inspirational film slips past our incredulity and holds our interest -- and it does, for most of its length -- it's because the formidable cast members bring their characters to life. When it wobbles -- and it does in the homestretch -- it's because the story sticks so faithfully to the literal truth of the case. It's better than OK, a worthy, well-told story, but less than brilliantly entertaining.
Hilary Swank, Hollywood's go-to gal for iron-jawed gumption, plays Betty Anne in her trademark style. Naturalistic, nothing flashy, no grand soliloquies, 90 percent determination. She doesn't dominate her scenes. Swank is a plodder playing a plodder. Her role is to believe in her brother's innocence and to keep stoically plugging away at her cause year in, year out. The flashy parts go to Sam Rockwell as Kenny and Juliette Lewis as one of Kenny's castoff girlfriends who's pleased to see him in the slammer for life.
Rockwell's performances are always about half nitroglycerine; at any moment he could go off and blow a hole through the screen. Kenny is Rockwell's kind of guy, always the brightest light in the room but as likely to head-butt you as buy you a drink. The logic of the story gives us a rooting interest in his innocence, but Rockwell keeps us dubious. He could be guilty, and his sister's quest is more moving for that.
As his vengeful ex, Lewis has a great drunk scene, justifying her nastiness in deranged syntax. Minnie Driver tries to inject fizz into her sitcom banter as Betty Anne's sarcastic best friend, and Melissa Leo makes a strong impression as a small-town policewoman who despises both Waters siblings. Think of a third-grade teacher with brass knuckles.
The film moves along but never achieves liftoff. This is a courtroom drama where tenacity, coincidence and good fortune carry the day, not brilliant legal strategy. It's one of the great pleasures of a David and Goliath legal struggle to see the underdog outwit the opposition and deliver a stirring summation to the jury. "Conviction" sticks to the unspectacular truth of real life, where key decisions occur in private and a man's fate depends on whether or not a filing box full of court papers went to the incinerator as scheduled. Like its star, "Conviction" is solid but temperamentally a little dull.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186