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If Conviction weren’t based on a true story, the screenwriter who pitched it would have been laughed out of the room. Unless a studio was partial to plots that were hackneyed, highly unbelievable, and ludicrously predictable within a feel-good-movie-of-the-year framework. Minus its stars and its facts, Tony Goldwyn’s film wouldn’t be worthy of a Law & Order episode.
Yet knowing that its broad strokes actually happened, you gotta marvel. Betty Anne Waters was a Massachusetts housemom and high-school dropout when her brother, Kenny, was convicted of a gruesome murder in 1983. Though he maintained his innocence, Kenny’s failed appeals kept him locked up and suicidal. So Betty Anne did what no one else would do: She went back to school to become a lawyer and prove her brother wasn’t a killer, working nights as a barmaid and losing her husband in her apparent lunacy. Her plan took 18 years.
Hilary Swank, tough as her New England accent, may be Oscar-baiting as the single-minded Betty Anne, but it’s hard not to root for the character—even if it’s unclear whether Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is as “innocent” as everyone else in jail or if he’s actually telling the truth. Childhood flashbacks show the pair as BFFs, enthusiastic if largely harmless troublemakers whose mother’s negligence forced them to forge their own happiness. When Kenny got nicked for shoplifting, Betty Anne fought the cops. And when the state threatened to separate them when they’re put into foster care, the siblings ran away instead of risking life without each other.
Kenny never did fully straighten up, getting into bar fights and enough bad spots that a local cop (Frozen River’s Melissa Leo) makes a beeline for him when a woman is stabbed to death. But all Betty Anne sees is a good-if-wayward dad, not only never imagining he may be guilty but throwing her best friend, law-school classmate, and biggest supporter, Abra (Minnie Driver), out of her house when she suggests the possibility that Betty Anne’s fight may yield unwanted results.
Goldwyn, working off a script by Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon), gets as tunnel-visioned as his heroine as he compacts nearly two decades into 107 minutes. We have to assume that Betty Anne’s husband left her, for instance, and know little of Kenny’s presentenced adult life. As enjoyable as Driver’s no-bullshit Abra is, she too is merely a prop, from the time she insinuates herself into Betty Anne’s life until the end of their “Free Kenny” project. It’s only by default, but you become obsessed, too, and the actors’ sharp performances—from Swank, Rockwell, and Driver down to the contemptible Leo and Juliette Lewis as Kenny’s trashy ex—make Betty Anne’s every victory and setback visceral. You may know how this story ends before you walk into the theater. Even so, don’t be surprised if the film moves you to Lifetime-like tears.