Betty Anne Waters couldn’t beat the system, so she became part of the system.
“Conviction” is her story, and it’s a remarkable one. She acquires her GED and bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees so she can attempt to get her innocent brother out of prison. It’s also a true story, or more likely true-ish, considering this is a product of Hollywood, which isn’t known for its objective accuracy.
But there’s subjective truth in “Conviction,” found in Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell. The title’s double meaning is obvious, but it applies to their performances, too. Playing siblings Betty Anne and Kenny, their characterizations are convincing and honest, nurtured by director Tony Goldwyn, who keeps the emotions of this “inspirational” story under control and out of the realms of manipulative schmaltz.
This makes thematic sense — in the courtroom, emotion only gets you so far. Betty Anne learns quickly that her inextricable attachment and loyalty to her brother will not overturn his first-degree murder sentence. For that, she needs to develop her intellect, which, teamed with her personable self and a righteous argument, opens doors.
Two things this film does well: One, developing Kenny as a troublemaker, a good-hearted goof. He’s a devoted father, always cracking jokes. He’s also impulsive and willing to resolve a situation with fisticuffs. But there’s an easy distinction between a ruffian and a murderer. When officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) picks him up — he’s one of the usual suspects, all too familiar with arrest procedure — to question him in the brutal stabbing of a local woman, he cracks jokes. He seems incapable of taking anything seriously, until he’s in prison, where his despair is buried deep beneath Rockwell’s funny-sad smile.
And two: The courtroom scenes, through dialogue skillfully crafted by screenwriter Pamela Gray, convey how some statements are objectively true, but real character is subjective and defined by context. The way sarcasm can be troublesome to convey via the written word, the testimony against Kenny, specifically concerning statements he made, is delivered coldly, not with the jocularity of his voice. One person’s jest is another’s defamatory declaration.
Shot in Ann Arbor and Jackson, “Conviction” jumps from decade to decade: To Betty Anne and Kenny’s childhood, during which they were inseparable troublemakers, except when child welfare sends them to different foster homes. To Kenny’s trial in 1983. To Betty Anne’s law-school days, when she befriends fellow student Abra Rice (Minnie Driver). To the late ’90s and early ’00s, when Betty Anne tries to dig up lost evidence from the trial.
These are cliches, yes, and Goldwyn’s direction is similarly square, erring on the side of clarity. Yet the film’s authenticity lies in Swank and Rockwell, whose restraint brings focus on the people and their plight. She’s agreeable, forthright and sympathetic, finding the nobility in Betty Anne’s sacrifice; he’s colorful without indulging in bombastic eccentricity, a complex portrait of paranoia, rage and guilt. Like Betty Anne, they work within a system — Hollywood — and navigate it in search of truth.