Movies based on true stories are sure-shots straight to the heart, especially those with photos of the real people during the end credits (see The Blind Side). Conviction will make you cry. It tells the story of Kenny and Betty Anne Waters, who grew up poor in rural Ayer, Mass., all but abandoned by their mother—a woman who had five children by five different men, so says a cop with distaste. They spent their childhoods in the late 1960s and '70s raised by a grandfather and separated by the foster-care system when they were young, and they were wild: fighting in a hay-covered ring in the barn and breaking into a neighbor's mobile home just to eat stolen candy on a nicely made bed.
A murder takes place in that same mobile home in 1980 and Kenny (Sam Rockwell), now in his mid-20s, is picked up for questioning. When police officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) asks Kenny about it, he acts like an ass: "Take it easy there, Angie Dickinson," he tells her. He knows all the cops in the town holding pen where he's taken; he's been there before. His sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) picks him up with a joke and warily stops his taunting of Taylor. Later, when the cops come to their grandfather's funeral to name Kenny as the murderer, he maintains his innocent attitude.
As kids, Betty Anne and Kenny spent more time on their own and in trouble than they did in a stable environment, meaning they don't always behave according to social norms. In a scene that takes place before Kenny's arrest, Betty Anne and her fiance Rick (Loren Dean) celebrate their engagement in a honky-tonk with Kenny's baby-momma Brenda (Clea Duvall) and infant daughter. Kenny takes his child out on the dance floor and sways around with her while Betty Anne tells the table that her brother is such a good daddy, though Rick's face betrays his skepticism. When a dancing patron questions Kenny's parenting to his face, he explains that his daughter likes the band, drops the baby off with her mother, and head-butts the guy. It's a scary, violent moment that shocks everyone at the table, but he shrugs it off and starts dancing seductively, stripping, and making the women in his life laugh again.
Kenny is charming and violent and uneducated and crass, but he's also unconditionally loved by Betty Anne, who never gives up on him, even after he is convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison without parole, a verdict sealed after his blood type is matched to the crime scene and the testimony of two ex-girlfriends.
Two years later, he's a broken man. Kenny's life-of-the-party dangerous energy has faded, making him sad and angry. His color is gone, he looks way older than his sister, and his eyes are softer. He knows no lawyer would care enough about his "piece of shit life," and they have no money. So Betty Anne decides to get her GED, go to law school, and represent him—a rough road ahead for a single mom with two sons.
Betty Anne begins to fall behind in law school, but fellow student Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) befriends her, offering her support and help. During a study group, Betty Anne learns about DNA testing, at that point a new method in evidence gathering, and the Innocence Project, a group run by Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) that helps exonerate the wrongfully convicted. All she needs to do is get the court evidence, now 12 years after the crime, and overcome a million other obstacles.
Juliette Lewis—as Roseanna, one of two ex-girlfriends that testified against Kenny—delivers some of the best acting in a movie filled with great performances. The action seems to stop during her scenes, and you focus all your attention on her darting eyes, baby-girl mew, and defensive attacks weaved with cowering. Swank is bound to garner Oscar buzz for her work here, and she deserves it, never forgetting that Betty Anne isn't merely a loyal sibling with bulldog determination but also a mother and woman who is used to refusing to be ignored.
The movie belongs to Rockwell, though. His Kenny is lovable yet appears capable of murder. He's funny and rude, and liked even by those who lock him up. He makes you question and believe and hope and despair. Swank's Betty Anne gives Kenny strength, but Rockwell keeps you doubting her conviction.