The phrase "inspired by a true story" often brings on goose bumps of the wrong variety, as it generally stands as shorthand for filmmakers and actors blatantly trawling for honors come awards time. (Call it the Ron Howard syndrome.) Fortunately, Conviction is an example of this often shameless genre done right: well acted, deftly arranged, and—okay, okay—occasionally genuinely inspiring. Gratuitous statue bait though it might be, it handles itself with poise, class, and a knack for avoiding the standard mawkish potholes. It's a movie you can see with the folks and not walk away feeling ill-used.
Pamela Gray's script follows the case of Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), a hair-trigger rural Massachusetts no-account suspected of the murder of a woman in the early 1980s. After he gets sentenced to life without parole, his sister (Hilary Swank) launches a decades-spanning plan to set him free, which includes putting herself through law school.
The outcome probably won't surprise anyone who's ever seen a movie before (particularly for viewers of the fine 2005 documentary After Innocence, which covered much of the same turf), but the sister's quest does lead into some intriguing areas, most notably the at-the-time-new practice of DNA profiling.
Director Tony Goldwyn, previously responsible for the Gray-scripted A Walk on the Moon, does some interesting structural tricks with the material, beginning somewhere in the middle and hopscotching around in a way that extends the shelf life of the narrative's more rote story elements. (His efforts to infuse the many childhood flashbacks with a pastoral Malickian beauty are less successful, but hey, points for trying.) Where Conviction really scores, however, is with the cast, whose efforts help the film rise above soft-focus sentiment. While Swank has been to this inspirational well a few too many times to register much, the rest of the actors go far beyond the call, especially Juliette Lewis as a boozy, terrifyingly toothy trailer-park gargoyle and Minnie Driver, whose turn as the genre-obligatory sassy girlfriend unearths the daffy screwball charm that she's kept in check since the Grosse Pointe Blank era. Best-in-show honors, however, go to Rockwell, as they often do these days. Without ever condescending to the material or playing above his character's considerable limitations, he brings this unsaintly, gargantuanly flawed man caught up in an infernal machine to life. If his name gets called on Oscar night, they won't have to flash the applause sign.