There are times when clichés can be comforting and even profound in their familiarity, and then there are times when they’re just, well, clichés. Conviction largely traffics in the latter. Based on a true story, the film stars Hilary Swank as high school dropout Betty Anne Waters, who goes to law school so she can free her wrongly convicted brother Kenneth from prison. Sam Rockwell plays the brother, a small town Massachusetts ne’er-do-well who’d been in and out of trouble for most of his life before he was charged in the early 1980s with murder. Swank is convinced that the local cops (represented by a sneering officer played by Melissa Leo) railroaded Rockwell because of his past, so she risks economic ruin and alienating her family to prove his innocence, driven by reports of DNA evidence reversing old cases. Along the way, she betters herself, makes new friends, and learns the value of determination. Conviction is like Erin Brockovich meets Rudy.
The movie is remarkably well-acted—with a superb supporting performance by Minnie Driver as Swank’s eternally patient classmate—and it’s satisfying to watch a character use her wits and resources to fight for the only family member who ever cared for her. But director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray dramatize the Waters’ plight in the most obvious ways, largely avoiding the ambiguities of the people and the flavor of their upbringing. Instead, we get the requisite scene of Swank fighting with her husband because he thinks she’s spending all her time on a lost cause, and the scene where she forgets her promised fishing trip with her sons because she has to participate in a mock trial. The only remotely imaginative element in Conviction is its opening flashback, which explains what happened to Rockwell in a series of free-flowing, not-strictly chronological moments. Other than that (and the acting), there’s nothing here that can’t be seen on TV a dozen times a day, in shows that are much more surprising.