• Stars: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell
  • Director: Tony Goldwyn
  • Writer: Pamela Gray

“Conviction” sounds far too familiar, chronicling the true journey of a bartender and mother who puts herself through law school for the sole purpose of exonerating her imprisoned brother.  But with writer Pamela Gray and director Tony Goldwyn at the helm, the same team who crafted the undervalued but beautifully realistic “A Walk on the Moon,” “Conviction” should certainly rise above its Lifetime-esque aura.  Throw in Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as heroine Betty Anne Waters, and it can’t go wrong.

And yet, it does.

The saga begins in the tiny town of Ayer, Massachusetts when Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is charged with committing a brutal murder.  Found guilty on the basis of incriminating testimony and his own shady history with the law, Kenny is sentenced to life in prison.

Convinced of Kenny’s innocence and unable to afford an attorney, Betty Anne struggles through law school in the hope of saving her brother.  Along the way, she sacrifices her marriage and even custody of her children.  But she also picks up an invaluable asset in Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), a fellow aspiring lawyer and loyal friend.  With Abra’s help, Betty Anne chases down every lead, including a missing evidence box that may hold the DNA proof she desperately needs.

I can’t fault the production values.  The acting is solid, the Massachusetts accents thick but convincing.  The dialogue accomplishes what it needs to, moving the story along.  And we at DickFlicks appreciate the biopically mandated Strong Female Lead.  But as we like to remind our readers, the Strong Female Lead and the Not-A-Dick Flick stamp are somewhat superficial measurements that do not guarantee excellence in filmmaking.  There’s just nothing that stands out in this run-of-the-mill tale of fighting the good fight.

Gray’s writing illuminates reasonable depth of character, keeping the audience guessing as to Kenny’s guilt or innocence.  But there are no surprises with Betty Anne.  Her faith in her brother is stalwart, her determination absolute.  She experiences an obligatory moment of doubt, and the requisite obstacles are thrown into her path at the appropriate pre-determined intervals.  One crucial miracle, and even the shadow Kenny himself casts over his own innocence, make you groan despite their basis in fact.

The dilemma is terrifyingly important: can you really be wholly innocent of a serious crime and wind up behind bars for decades?  Cop shows, news reports, and the bulk of the free population would have you believe that such travesties are nigh impossible.  Yet more and more convictions are being overturned every year.  A film based on such a potentially life-altering question should itself be life-altering.  Sadly, “Conviction” delivers a Strong Female Lead and a Not-A-Dick Flick and not a whole lot else.

Perhaps “Conviction” suffers because of something beyond its control: the thousands of women-in-jeopardy movies that have inundated the television airwaves for decades.  Director Goldwyn spent nine years faithfully recreating a compelling real-life drama that happens to fall point for point into a tired formula.  Without the intangible qualities that elevate a film to epic status, this extraordinary story simply can’t differentiate itself from the slew of fictitious and entirely mediocre movies-of-the-week that came before.

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