Every year, the studios release a handful of films about mentally or physically impaired people who persevere against the odds and overcome their disabilities. These usually star A-List actors who are very good and very Oscar friendly. The films are strategically released, starting in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and maybe San Francisco. Then, as word or mouth builds, the films open in more multiplexes across the country. Why do the studios do this? The only thing a studio wants more than huge box office is multiple Oscar nominations, which can lead to more box office. When they can't find a story about someone with a physical or mental handicap, they settle for a story about the underdog who overcomes great odds.
If you can look beyond the marketing machine behind these films and all cylinders are firing, you may experience some of the most memorable moments you spend in a movie theater all year.
When they aren't all firing? You get films like "Conviction".
Betty Ann Waters (Hillary Swank) and her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) have basically been on their own since they were pre-teens. They use each other as a support network and remain close throughout their lives. Kenny has problems with the police and a determined female officer, Officer Taylor (Melissa Leo) pegs him for the brutal murder of an elderly woman the two Waters children frequently play pranks on. Kenny is sentenced and one appeal after another is overturned. Finally, desperate to give her brother some hope, Betty decides she will go to Law School and defend her bother. There are a few obstacles; Betty is recently married and has a young son, she never completed high school or college and the couple struggles to make ends meet. In Law School, Betty meets Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) and they become friends. When they graduate, the two women also become Kenny's last chance to get out of prison.
Directed by Tony Goldwyn (the bad guy in "Ghost", director of a lot of television and the film "Someone Like You") and written by Pamela Gray ("Music of the Heart", "A Walk on the Moon"), "Conviction" is an okay film marred by some of the chunkiest storytelling I have seen on a multiplex screen in a long time.
Film is a visual art form and it is difficult to do a biography well; you have to balance a certain amount of exposition (so the viewer can get to know the characters) with a lot of narrative to propel the story forward. If you have ever seen a film biography "Conviction" will not surprise. It follows a fairly standard formula; it begins with Betty working in a bar at night and attending law school during the day. Naturally, as she is burning the candle at both ends, we recognize she is determined to achieve a goal. Oh, and she is juggling two teenage sons from her broken marriage. During a busy night, Abra recognizes her classmate and tries to get her attention. She asks Betty why she is the "other" old woman in their class and this causes Betty to get a far away look in her eyes. Then, she remembers back to an earlier point in her life with her brother, giving us some back-story. When the back-story is over, we are plopped into another part of the history. Later, we shoot back to an even earlier moment in their life. Then, Betty is newly married and Kenny gets into a fight, leading to his first run in with Officer Taylor (Leo). Later, we move back again and then jump back to "present day".
Simply watching someone gaze into the distance, leading to a memory is neither a very original or sophisticated method of introducing us to the back-story we need for this film to work. The moment in the bar doesn't work because Betty seems coerced into the memory; she is very busy and Abra seems to force herself on Betty. But as soon as she is forced to remember, boy do the memories come back.
A much better example of this technique is used in Danny Boyle's "127 Hours". In this far better film, Franco seems mesmerized by the memory we are about to see. And when it is over, he seems affected by it. In "Conviction", Swank simply stares into the great beyond, her eyes blank. We never feel like she is connecting to the memory we are witnessing. If she can't get us to connect, who will?
Because of all of the movement back and forth, between Betty and Kenny's childhood and their lives as adults, to the moments in "present day", the segments seem episodic and television like. And because there are so many segments, we never really feel the emotional impact of any of these moments. After Betty and Abra graduate, they attract the attention of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher). The three begin to interview people involved with the case, trying to find a new lead. When they don't get what they are looking for, Swank turns away and frowns at Driver. In the next scene, she turns away and frowns at Driver. When they finally get something useful, she turns to Driver and tries to hide her glee. Swank's Betty Ann would not be a good poker player. All of this happens on the surface and we never get beyond or below this, which is what is needed for this film to make an impression.
"Conviction" has all of the elements you would expect from such a film. Betty's two sons become involved in the case, acting as cheerleaders for her journey. You know that Betty will get her law degree despite the odds. Strangely, this moment has no emotional impact. It isn't supposed to. Everything in the film leads to Betty and Abra securing the release of Kenny. Maybe the filmmakers were afraid of diluting the perceived power of the final moments. But because we don't have the time or investment to care about anything earlier in the film, when are we supposed to care, connect or invest in any of the film?
"Conviction" is a forgettable film that will not be remembered when…