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Family's All I Got

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 26, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 26, 2010 |

This film shouldn’t work. It’s got all the hallmarks of…well, a fucking Hallmark Channel film. It’s based on the true story of a working-class Massachusetts mother who puts herself through law school so she can overturn her ne’er-do-well brother’s conviction after he’s been imprisoned for 18 years on a bogus murder charge. The cast contains three actresses I can’t fucking stand — Minnie Driver, Hilary Swank, and Juliette Lewis. It’s so paint-by-numbers emotionally exploitative you can still see the black crease marks marked “happy” and “sad.” But Boston is the new black, and by harshing up those vowels and dropping the r’s and giving the actors free reign with those lovable blue-collar f-bombs, Tony Goldwyn makes Pamela Gray’s script fucking work. Their last collaboration resulted in what some folks find one of the most underrated sexual-awakening flicks of all time, A Walk on the Moon. You can see every fucking machination coming from a mile away, and you can see all the moving parts, and you can even feel the fucking puppet strings being yanked in every scene, but goddamn it, it’s a fucking outstanding film. I can’t bank all of it on Sam Rockwell’s performance, because everyone in the film is so infused with industrially-burnt out bucolic charm, they all make you adore them. It’s the first film I’ve seen that feels Oscarbatory, but I sincerely hope it wins every fucking award they can throw out there.

The Waters kids, they’s trouble. Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) seems hellbent on trouble from the days he was a candy-stealing youngster to his 20s where he sets his baby down in his girlfriend’s arms so he can knockdown a guy in a bar and threaten him with a broken bottle. His apologetic and loving sidekick has always been his little sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank). In 1980, a local woman, Katharina Brow, is brutally murdered in her trailer, and the police call in the usual suspects, including good ol’ troublemaking Kenny. The female officer who brings him in, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), has it out for the smart-assed Kenny, and after two or three years, finally brings enough evidence for prosecutor Martha Coakley (Jennifer Roberts) to bring Kenny to trial. A number of ex-girlfriends step forward — including his child’s mother, Brenda Marsh (Clea Duvall), and a busted-tooth trailer junkie, Roseanna Perry (Juliette Lewis) — making claims that Kenny admitted to the crimes. Blood evidence at the time consisted of a blood-type match, which meant the ample blood of the perpetrator at the scene matched with Kenny’s O+ blood.

Betty Anne, convinced of her brother’s innocence, sets forward a ridiculously ambitious plan that seems like it was tailor-made for cinema. She earns her GED, then her bachelor’s degree, and finally gets her law degree from Roger Williams School of Law in Rhode Island. Oh, and she does all this while raising two sons as a divorcee and working part-time as a barmaid. Uphill, both ways, through a wicked nor’eastah. She and her other plucky older law-school classmate Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) research possible appeals for Kenny, who sits in prison on a life sentence. They discover that because of advances in DNA technology, the evidence can be tested against Kenny’s DNA to eliminate him as a possible suspect. They immediately contact Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project, who takes on these specific cases to help overturn wrongfully convicted felons. But if only it were that easy.

Again, as a film, this shouldn’t work and it shouldn’t work this good. Anyone who’s even had an episode of “Law & Order” on in the background while knitting or making stew knows exactly where this is going, and all the emotional pitfalls and stumbling blocks that are going to drop in the path of Betty Anne like a twister-tossed tractor. Let us call upon the blessing of the blue-collar New England, for it is literally that goddamn gritty charm that makes the film a winner. It sands all the harsh edges off of Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver and makes them fucking plucky and lovable. If they tried to clean up the swearing to earn a PG-13, this would have collapsed like a house of cards. Because of all the “fahks,” the film takes on a playful tone that’s goddamn magical. These aren’t nice middle-class folks who drive minivans and go to soccer practices. And even though the entire story is polished up to a smooth veneer before having it’s faux blue-collar delicately and carefully placed, it still fucking works.

And it’s the acting. I won’t take anything away from what Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn have done here, but it is the performances that make this film work. I haven’t seen so many actors click like this since Winter’s Bone, which is still the superior film, but Conviction does alright itself. Melissa Leo is just an amazing actress and watching her play a casual villain, someone who’s unspeakably evil without ever getting cartoonish or obvious, is brilliant. Peter Gallagher has taken to playing pompous douchebags, and by god he plays them full fathom five, so it’s equally nice to see him taking on a white hat for a change. Juliette Lewis is limited to two scenes in the movie, and you literally cannot take your eyes off her chipped Julietta Dentata, but it’s a really charactery role. Watching her on screen normally makes me feel like I haven’t brushed my teeth for a month, but she’s fucking terrific. Clea Duvall has a similar trailer park mama role, but Juliette Lewis has the more broad-crazy to her crazy broad, and both do a bang up job. If anything, Duvall has to do more with less, and she’s good at it. Minnie Driver kind of takes on the roles Cher used to play back when she was earning Oscars — that kind of spunky, “gonna tell you how it is” woman. It’s a cinematic Dorian Gray. For every moment she’s onscreen as Abra Rice, slinging sass, it manages to erase hours of her terrible performances since Good Will Hunting. Welcome back, hon. Now stay there.

By forcing Hilary Swank to adopt that brash New England slur, it cleanses her of that fucking Nebraska twang aw-shucks-shit she does in every fucking film. Even when she doesn’t play country, you can almost feel it shuffling its feet in the back of her acting. But her Betty Anne Waters is magical. You root for her. You can feel her love as strong as you feel her anger. She never strikes a single wrong note. She cruises through stale tropes like Shaun White taking a snowboard pipeline. This is the Hilary Swank who deserves Oscars, not the stupid bitch playing depression-era somberness, but the one who can take the statue who stands outside the Lifetime Channel offices (sans rape) and turns it into a lovable and worthy thing.

Well, if the Academy doesn’t recognize Sam Rockwell after this performance, we know the fucking fix is in. He should have been there earlier, and he definitely should have been recognized for Moon, so this is it. It’s not even the “performance of his career,” because Rockwell is always amazing. He could rap with the fucking Chipmunks in the Threesqueak or whatever they call it, and he’d still be astonishing. As Kenny Waters, he’s so charismatic, I beg women to take precautions before watching the films because you might get pregnant. I had to piss on a stick when I got home just to double check. He’s hitting the highs and lows like that pre-Avatar opera singer in The Fifth Element. You want him out of jail. The bond between Kenny and Betty Anne in the film is the stuff that earns you gold.

Conviction is normally the kind of film I rail against — a studio pic that waves such a giant “Pick Me, Baldy” Oscar flag that it makes you want to vomit. And true-story biopics about lawyers make me cringe. I went in wanting to demolish this script, tear into it like a revenge-seeking bear who was gangraped by hunters that they made a film about to piss off Dustin. (I, of course, refer to the upcoming Yogi Bear.) But by God, this won me over.