Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters
Sam Rockwell as Kenny Waters
Minnie Driver as Abra Rice
Ele Bardha as Don
Peter Gallagher as Barry Scheck
Ari Graynor as Mandy Marsh
Melissa Leo as Nancy Taylor
Marc Macaulay as Officer Boisseau
Bailee Madison as Young Betty Anne
Tobias Campbell as Young Kenny
Karen Young as Elizabeth Waters
Loren Dean as Rick
Clea DuVall as Brenda Marsh
Juliette Lewis as Roseanna Perry
Michele Messmer as Mrs. Brow
Gordon Michaels as Lt. Daniels
Janet Ulrich Brooks as Dr. McGilvray
Jennifer G. Roberts as Martha Coakley
Directed by Tony Goldwyn
After her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is convicted of murder, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) gets her high school GED, her college diploma and goes to law school in order to take the bar exam. 18 years later, she’s able to represent her brother and start doing whatever it might take to get him out of jail.
The story of Betty Anne Waters may not have been one on many people’s radars but it’s one perfectly suited for the cinema where true feel-good underdog stories can easily warm up audiences’ hearts, but often go overboard while trying to do so. Tony Goldwyn’s first movie as director since his remake “The Last Kiss” could very easily have been the sort of schmaltzy Hollywood fare that gets the more cynical moviegoer’s panties in a bunch, but in fact, it’s a strong film about a woman fighting for her brother’s life and his right for freedom when she believes he’s been wrongly convicted.
The film starts with the aftermath of a grisly murder in the outskirts of Boston, and local police officer Nancy Taylor, an understated performance by Melissa Leo, has a bone against Kenny Waters (Rockwell) after years of his drunken and truant behavior. Although her allegations don’t stick, years later Kenny is convicted of the crime based on the testimony of his ex-wife and a girlfriend who claim he boasted of the murder, and he’s thrown into jail. His sister Betty Anne (Swank) doesn’t believe her brother could have committed said crime and she becomes proactive in trying to get him out of jail, deciding to become a lawyer with the sole purpose of freeing him.
Throughout this first half, the film flashes back to Betty Anne and Kenny as kids, often getting in trouble, having had a drunken negligent mother themselves. These scenes do a commendable job establishing the tight bond necessary to make Betty Anne’s 18-year journey a credible one, as we see her often putting her own life on hold in her quest to save her brother.
The resulting movie plays out a bit like “Erin Brockovich” and much of that comes down to this being the same Hilary Swank that portrayed schoolteacher Erin Gruwell in “Freedom Writers,” only with a pronounced Boston accent. This Hilary Swank is incredibly empathic to the person she’s playing and like in that movie, Betty Anne’s drive to save her brother ultimately puts a wedge in her own marriage and breaks up her family, though her obsession with saving Kenny also keeps her on course. Betty Anne’s hard work eventually starts paying off as she takes the bar exam and the advent of DNA testing gives her new-found hope for her brother’s freedom.
As much as this is Swank’s show, it’s Sam Rockwell’s performance as Kenny that’s quite revelatory as we’re able to see him turn on the humor and charm at times, like during some celebratory days before his imprisonment, but also see how prison is affecting him, putting him in a depression to the point where he tries to kill himself. Sometimes, his clowning around gets a little much, but it does a good job keeping things from being too grim and serious.
Goldwyn has also padded out the cast with terrific actors like Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s closest friend who gets involved in the hunt for evidence in her brother’s case, and she also helps to keep things light. Leo returns for a fantastic scene later in the movie, and there are equally strong scenes with Clea Duvall as Kenny’s estranged wife, and Peter Gallagher is amusing as Barry Scheck, the lawyer most famous for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson trials. Ari Graynor’s turn as Kenny’s grown-up daughter is surprising considering how great she’s been at doing more comedic roles. Even Juliette Lewis, who can sometimes be grating, is quite effective as Kenny’s troubled girlfriend who reappears late in the movie.
All these great satellite characters keep the movie from ever getting dull, and Goldwyn gets solid performances out of each one of them, showing that he’s grown as an actor’s director, presumably thanks to his own acting background. As much as the movie is about the acting, it’s generally well-written and a good-looking film, but also one that remains surprisingly consistent despite the constantly varying tones which are held together by Paul Cantelon’s effective score.
The Bottom Line:
Terrific performances elevate this inspirational courtroom/procedural drama above the standard Hollywood “based on a true story” fare, and it does a fine job tugging at the emotional heartstrings even of the most jaded viewer.