Conviction is the kind of more-bland-than-truly-bad Oscar bait that, to its credit, displays genuine affection for its characters. The problem is that its would-be inspirational true story of a woman’s triumph over adversity is constructed by people that don’t know how to make their undistinguished dramatization compelling. Director Tony Goldwyn (The Last Kiss) and screenwriter Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart) have invested no lingering emotional resonance in Conviction because neither one has the patience for nuance. Every time the camera should linger on a certain shot, or the story’s schematic plot could slow down to deepen our understanding of the protagonists’ difficulties, it doesn’t. Full of functional broad beats and shorthand details, Conviction is melodrama, Cliff’s Notes-style.
Goldwyn and Gray assume that we want to cheer on the blue-collar underdog so badly that a few instantly digestible tics and symbols will suffice for the organically developed character traits that should move the film’s plot forward instead of the other way around. Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a mother of two boys living in a rural part of Massachusetts where people prove their lower-middle-class status by talking with bad New England accents, ostentatiously order Buschmills from their local bartender like they were doing it on a dare, and shop at supermarkets with signs advertising discounted prices for Catsup.
Mary Anne’s brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is a hotheaded wiseass who likes to act out, as when he puts on an impromptu striptease at the local bar right after he beats up a guy that spoke ill of his baby daughter, also in the bar at the time for some reason. When Kenny’s arrested and convicted because his blood type matches blood found at the crime scene, Betty Anne goes on a 21-year crusade to pass the Bar Exam and get him out of prison. She does this with the help of her sassy friend Abra (Minnie Driver), who stands by her side through thick and thin, never hesitating to tease Mary Anne about how terrible her mac and cheese is or to tell her to give up fighting for Kenny when she feels that Mary Anne should give up. There’s really no room for the viewer to let their imagination run wild in Conviction beyond these details: What you see is unfortunately all of what you get.
In that sense, the most irksome problem with Conviction isn’t its grandstanding performances, which are all perfectly acceptable within the realm of hysterics-driven acting (Juliette Lewis has a small role as a laughable caricature of white trash, but even she hits her histrionic marks very well). Instead, the film’s reductive scope is to blame. Gray tries to jam in as many key scenes in Mary Anne’s road to victory as possible and in the process, drastically reduces the impact of each one. Any sympathetic sense of dread for Mary Anne’s ailing home life and suffering brother, whose pain is largely etched on Rockwell’s face through intricate makeup effects that make the character’s crow’s feet look like Tyson’s Maori facial tattoos, eventually dissipates. If you start to think things are looking hopeless for Mary Anne, just keep watching: The film’s happy ending will come eventually.