Sister fights to free imprisoned brother in moving ‘Conviction’
A boy’s best friend is his mother, as the old song goes, but don’t ask Kenny Waters to hum a few bars. A real-life defendant in a Massachusetts murder trial, Waters was convicted in 1983 and sent to prison for life without possibility of parole. He’d be there still if not for the Herculean efforts of his “baby sister,” Betty Anne Waters, a barmaid and high-school dropout who so believed in her brother’s innocence, she devoted 16 years of her life—and put herself through law school—in hopes of navigating the legal system and getting his conviction overturned.
The Waters siblings’ amazing story is told in the moving David-and-Goliath drama Conviction. (A title that describes Kenny’s life sentence, the catalyst for the story, as well as Betty Anne’s unswerving faith in her brother.) With a clean, straightforward script by Pamela Gray that leaves room for life-sized human emotion, the film is directed at a brisk pace by Tony Goldwyn. Possibly due to actor-turned-director Goldwyn’s influence, Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell act their hearts out as Betty Anne and Kenny, with several other entertaining supporting performances embedded into the tale.
After a brief prologue offering a shadowy, circumspect glimpse into a bloody crime scene in the hamlet of Ayer, Mass., the movie begins with Betty Anne (Swank) already struggling through law school. In class all day, tending bar at night, she barely has time to get her two teen sons off to school in the morning, let alone keep up with her studies. In the bar one night, she bumps into Abra Rice (the wonderful Minnie Driver), another re-entry student in her law class. (They’re the only two students “who’ve been through puberty,” cracks Abra.) In bits and pieces, Betty Anne starts telling Abra the story of her brother, Kenny (Rockwell), currently serving a life sentence for a crime she’s sure he did not commit.
As the narrative moves around in time, we see Kenny and Betty Anne as kids, abandoned by their mother to their grandpa’s farm, racketing around town getting into trouble; in and out of foster homes, the one constant in their lives is their bond with each other. As adults, Kenny is the first usual suspect picked up whenever there’s any trouble, but it’s not until two years after the grisly murder that the police amass enough evidence to convict him of it, based on the highly spurious testimonies of two ex-girlfriends.
Over the years, Betty Anne sacrifices everything to her mission to get Kenny out; her marriage breaks up and she risks becoming the same kind of absentee mom that her own negligent mother was to her. She’s close to giving up when a class assignment leads her to the new science of DNA profiling. Things shift into subtle suspense mode as she and Abra pass the bar, investigate court records, try to track down 16-year-old evidence, and enlist the aid and resources of The Innocence Project, a legal organization that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions under crusading attorney Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher). Meanwhile, in her frequent prison visits, Betty Anne struggles to convince an ever more despondent Kenny that his case is not hopeless.
The film dares to portray the younger Kenny as a jerky, swaggering hothead who might be capable of murder; there’s no reason for anyone (including the audience) to believe otherwise, except for Betty Anne’s passionate certainty. (Indeed, it might have given the story more depth had she entertained a moment of doubt, even if she didn’t admit it to anyone but herself.) Still, Rockwell does a fine job morphing into a clonishly tatooed prison tough without ever losing his essential spark of humanity.
Also excellent is Melissa Leo (Frozen River) as the town’s sole female police officer, determined to be taken seriously, and Juliette Lewis delivers a slightly hammy, but creepily effective cameo as a dubious witness. It’s the camaraderie beween Driver’s wisecracking Abra and Swank’s heartfelt Betty Anne, however, that keeps the story percolating along to its expected, yet satisfying conclusion.
★★★ (out of four)
With Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, and Minnie Driver. Written by Pamela Gray. Ditrected by Tony Goldwyn. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 107 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>