In "Conviction," Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, who fought to overturn her brother's life sentence for a 1980 murder. Over 18 years she earned her high school equivalency diploma, enrolled in law school, passed the bar, became her brother's attorney and tracked down the DNA evidence that would prove his innocence, all while working at a pub and raising two sons.

To promote the film, Fox Searchlight mailed out an amusing freebie: a "Conviction" to-do list. It made its point: All I jotted down was milk and dry cleaning.

The film forgets a few items of its own, but director Tony Goldwyn (2006's underrated "The Last Kiss") tells the story coherently and with refreshing understatement. In semirural Ayer, Mass., Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) is a fun-loving troublemaker accustomed to being rounded up for every new crime in need of a suspect. After a local woman is brutally murdered, however, Kenny finds himself buried under a mountain of evidence, including two former flames who testify to his confession.

Swank's Waters is impressively single-minded - her marriage crumbles, her kids leave home, she presses on - but also somewhat single-faceted. It's easier to invest in Kenny, whose emotional strength weakens year by disappointing year. Rockwell is terrific: He doesn't just age, he almost literally disappears before our eyes.

Eventually the Innocence Project's Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) joins Kenny's cause, which inadvertently highlights the movie's lack of a larger context. All the issues that knot together to cause wrongful convictions - race, class, politics, systemic problems - are treated only glancingly. The film seems as narrowly focused as Betty Anne, and suffers for it as well.

Back story: For both, it was worth the wait

It took Betty Anne Waters nearly two decades working as a single mother to put herself through law school so she could prove her jailed brother innocent of murder. It took filmmaker Tony Goldwyn nine years to find the financing to tell her compelling story in "Conviction."

Ultimately the delay was all for the good. Goldwyn, whose family is Hollywood royalty, and Waters, a blue-collar scrapper from tiny Ayer, Mass., used the time to get to know each other, developing a close friendship and deep rapport.

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"Betty Anne is extraordinary yet profoundly down to earth," said Goldwyn, the grandson of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn.

Goldwyn, recognizing a courtroom David-and-Goliath case wrapped in a strong family drama, nurtured the project for years. Though the budget was a modest $20 million, he attracted a top-flight cast (Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver) willing to take sizable pay cuts.

"Every person, every single department, had to make it work with such limited resources. But because everyone is so emotionally connected to this story, this love story between a brother and sister, we pulled together a great creative team."

- Minneapolis Star Tribune