"Conviction" is like a quieter, earnest and less annoying neighbor of "The Blind Side". Both films cover the Heartland; both are about "regular" Americans with few advantages who have extraordinary stories to tell. But whereas "The Blind Side" played like an abrasive modern-day "Great White Hope", blind to its own smugness and condescension, "Conviction" at least manages to stay true to its own worldview without feeling preachy, and strives for an uplifting portrayal of learning, filial love and sacrifice.
Once again Hilary Swank is a determined everywoman trying to overcome the sterility and ignorance of her upbringing to achieve an uncommon greatness. She is more vulnerable here, worthy of her subject (and better than the script deserves), and gives play to a wider variety of emotions. Swank, who was a stunner in "Boys Don't Cry" and heartbreaking in the otherwise dubious "Million Dollar Baby", needs to find a comic vehicle sometime soon, or accept the challenge of a more sophisticated role; she is in danger of typecasting herself as some sort of patron saint of the mobile home.
"Conviction" tells the true story of Betty Ann Waters and her lovably wild brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell), siblings who remained close despite multiple separations in a variety of foster homes. When Kenny, who had previous scrapes with the law, is convicted of the murder of a long-time neighborhood resident, Waters decides to complete her GED and continue her education, attain her goal of graduating from Law School to become Kenny's official legal counsel, prove his innocence, and win his freedom.
The film tries to tell the story in a straightforward manner, but it is disproportionate. When Waters' law-school colleague and friend (Minnie Driver) makes some casual inquiries, the reply becomes an extended flashback which (however effectively) fills us in on the back story and Waters' situation; but we never return to the original conversation. The movie continues its back and forth movement, and bogs down in predictability when it should provide more detail.
For instance, no sooner does Waters announce her decision to finish her GED, than she is in the middle of law school, on academic probation. We never learn how she fared through her early college courses, nor see her astonishing effort to succeed and get into law school. The bland and misshapen screenplay sabotages the strength of its own material.
Anyway, it is laudable that a mainstream film makes a character's struggle to educate herself one of the centerpieces of its story. I could have done without a depiction of her failed marriage, with Loren Dean, as her husband, turned into a sexist cliche ("I WON'T let you go back to school!"). On the other hand, Rockwell is terrific (and ages convincingly) as the brother who is full of swagger and charm, and who finally exhibits tenderness at the realization that his sister sacrificed so much for him.
In support, Driver manages a convincing Boston accent and is strong in an underwritten role. Peter Gallagher (have we seen him since "American Beauty"?) has a couple effective scenes as the director of the lab that runs the (then brand-new) DNA-testing technology that was so important to Kenny's release. As a witness who has a chance to recant later, Juliette Lewis chews the scenery, with makeup and rotten teeth that rival Linda Blair's in "The Exorcist". (At least I hope it was makeup; the otherwise effective Lewis looked horrible in this film!)
There is nothing innovative or even remotely exciting about the filmmaking here. In fact, except for some gruesome imagery around the murder scene, and some realistically profane prison language, it is barely a step up from a tepid Lifetime film. And the movie turns Massachusetts Attorney General (and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Senate) Martha Coakley into the presumptive villain and enemy of the Waters', revealing the movie's political leanings.
However, I was won over by the last half hour, when the pacing became tighter, and the process by which important evidence was hidden, destroyed, or found lent the film a measure of suspense. "Conviction" tells a story that needed to be told, and did an honest job of it. Still, I came away feeling this was a nice movie, but considering the triumphant story of a woman's crusade to educate herself, and her success in seeing justice done at last, I was mildly moved, but not triumpantly so.