Conviction is the story of Betty Ann Waters, whose brother, Kenny, was wrongly convicted for murder in a dirty trial filled with manufactured testimony from dirty ex-girlfriends and a dirty cop. To free him, Betty gets her GED, puts herself through college and law school – all while raising two boys and keeping a full time job. The film, which stars Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell, opens with the most melodramatic of flashbacks as we see Kenny and Betty as children – suggesting a bond that is unbreakable. Nearly everything about Conviction, from its irritating title to generic presentation, suggests a trite, formulaic snoozer that would be pleasantly at home on Lifetime. Tony Goldwyn’s film, however, is absorbing in the oddest way, presenting Betty’s story so passionately that I was able to put the eye rolls in check and give it an honest chance.
Since the story spans roughly 20 years, things move quickly and many details of Betty’s life during the years of Kenny’s imprisonment are brushed over or avoided entirely. She was married with a baby when Kenny was convicted, with testimony from ex-girlfriends who say he told them he committed the murder, but the story quickly jumps ahead to her living as a single mother with two boys. Her marriage obviously disintegrated during those years, but aside from fleeting mentions of the divorce, we’re left to assume that her commitment to Kenny was what caused her husband to leave. Like much of the film’s exposition, it’s satisfying at the most minimal level, though understandable considering the meat of the story takes place during and after her time in law school. It’s there that she meets the only other “old lady” in their class, Abra – played by Minnie Driver in the film’s best performance. After revealing to Abra her true intentions for becoming a lawyer, she becomes Betty’s sole adult friend, supporting and assisting her throughout the investigation.
And it’s here that the movie really finds its footing. Beyond the clunky, oversimplified exposition, the heart of this film lies in the story of two women joining together and fighting against all odds. And in that respect, Conviction is surprisingly powerful. Despite an annoying, whiny performance by Hillary Swank and uninspired writing and direction, the story of Betty and Abra’s persistence and eventual success is genuinely uplifting. The real Betty Anne Waters, of course, deserves more credit than the filmmakers or actors, but I can’t deny the fact that the movie tells her story with compassion and respect. It’s a generic crowd-pleaser, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.
Conviction opens in limited release today.