Eight foster homes as a child. Single motherhood. Lower-middle-class unemployment. Life wasn't exactly peaches and cream for Betty Anne Waters, according to the "based on a true story" film "Conviction."
But when her brother Kenny fails to beat a murder rap, Waters doesn't look back; instead, she embarks on a two-decade quest to prove Kenny's innocence. To succeed, the high-school dropout will have to get her GED, earn her BA, graduate law school, and pass the bar exam. And all that's merely prelude to facing the corruption and bureaucracy endemic to the Massachusetts institutions that arrested Kenny and sentenced him to life without parole. This is a job for ... Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank!
Or, rather, playing Betty Anne is a job for Swank, who summons up the proper obsessive tenacity. The mountains of research paperwork mined by screenwriter Pamela Gray must have made it easier for her to identify with her hero, though "Conviction" isn't all dogged procedure. We get a strong sense for the familial love that makes Betty Anne's actions understandable. In Betty Anne's and Kenny's troubled youth, it was always them against the world, and little sis determines to reward her brother's care. As played by the perpetually undervalued Sam Rockwell, the roguish Kenny is no angel. But seeing the live wire slowly ebb away in prison renews Betty Anne's determination.
"Conviction" belongs to that same "love and research" genre once owned by Susan Sarandon (think "Dead Man Walking" and "Lorenzo's Oil"). Increasingly, Betty Anne must rely on emotional appeals to get what she needs, and the movie takes a lesson from her. Directed with smooth professionalism by actor Tony Goldwyn, the film effectively hits the emotional beats of the process' lows and highs. Principal among the "lows" is the rockiness (and erosion) of Betty Anne's relationship with her two sons.
Among the highs: arousing the interest of celebrity lawyer Barry Sheck. Though remembered by many as one of O.J. Simpson's high-profile defense attorneys, Sheck also co-founded the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions using DNA evidence. It's something of a hoot to see Peter Gallagher as Sheck, but the film's liveliest performance may be that of Juliette Lewis, perfectly seedy as the wary woman who may agree to recant testimony from Kenny's trial. Minnie Driver also proves a welcome presence, as friend, unofficial support staffer and co-worker (when Betty Anne takes a job as a barmaid).
"Conviction" may not much tease the intellect, but one would have to be a rock to be unmoved by the true story's dramatic arc, well played by Swank and Rockwell. It's understandable that the filmmakers would leave out the inconvenient detail that the real Kenneth Waters died in an accident just months after the events depicted in the film. Still, there's inspiration to be had in the remarkable sacrifices and endurance of the Waters siblings.