Saturday, October 30, 2010

True Stories: NOWHERE BOY and CONVICTION

When making a film based on a true story the easiest and biggest problem is failing to find the compelling story within the facts. Especially when dealing with a figure like John Lennon, the temptation to go sprawling into unfocused hagiography must look pretty appealing. In Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh wisely focus on the coming-of-age years in which Lennon was an older teenager, forging his identity and falling in love with rock and roll while experiencing some turbulent family conflict. The film is nothing spectacular. It’s awfully conventional and sometimes falls into biopic pitfalls, like including scenes that only resonate for viewers already aware of the history being told, but the nice period detail and fine acting really carry the picture.

Aaron Johnson, last seen as the lead in Kick-Ass, capably channels Lennon’s teen angst while showing hints of his developing musical talent. In the film, Lennon is torn between the maternal love of two women, his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and the aunt who raised him (Kristin Scott Thomas). While Greenhalgh’s screenplay can get a bit too melodramatic at times, Wood’s unmemorable direction tends to balance it out so the family drama mostly works on the strength of the performers. The great Kristin Scott Thomas, most of all, delivers an excellent performance, inhabiting a strict, stiff-lipped, matter-of-fact woman who seems to take bad news all too well. Her barriers are strong, but it’s easy to see the strong emotions behind her sad eyes and pursed lips.

Running parallel to the family plot is Lennon’s increasing musical ambitions that give the movie its drive and pulse. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Lennon and McCartney (Thomas Sangster), though they are imbued with the kind of vague weight that would easily puzzle those not already familiar with who these characters become. But who doesn’t know Lennon and McCartney? When the film ends, Lennon goes off to Germany to play some gigs with a new band. His aunt can’t remember the name.

This is a film that contains not one measure of The Beatles music, ending with Lennon on the precipice of ubiquity. It’s a film with young men stumbling towards the limelight, but when the credits roll it’s still nothing but a glint in their eyes. This is a solid film that remains tightly focused on a short period of time, a factor that’s key to its modest success and to its slight feeling of incompleteness.

Also based on true events is Conviction, which is a film that has no difficulty finding a narrative through-line. This is not a biopic. This is a legal drama about Kenny Waters, a wrongly convicted man (Sam Rockwell) who is imprisoned for years. No scene goes by without relating directly to the core plot. We get some flashbacks that feature childhood troublemaking with his sister, Betty Anne. The two kids, who lived with a neglectful mother and subsequently in a handful of foster homes, would break into houses to pretend they had a normal life. They would also stand up for each other, fighting ferociously and determinedly to right wrongs perceived to have been done to them. So of course, when Kenny gets life without parole for a crime he didn’t commit, Betty Anne springs into action. She gets her G.E.D. and then goes to law school, hoping to become a lawyer and argue on his behalf.

Rather than letting the story just speak for itself, veteran television director Tony Goldwyn, working from a script by Pamela Gray, spells out the inspiration we should all be feeling by indulging mawkish dialogue and pouring over nearly every scene an insistently sentimental piano score. Hilary Swank, as Betty Anne, is presented as a heroine of the Pyrrhic victory. With the case, she makes a little progress and gets pushed back a little further from her goal with regularity. In her personal life her single-minded pursuit of justice plays a part in her divorce and in her strained relationships. Swank puts on a distracting accent and appears to be perpetually on the brink of tears. I suppose it’s what the presentation asks for, but it’s far from her best performance.

These mildly disappointing elements don’t quite manage to fully distract from the inherent interest the story supplies. When the film works, it’s not always as an inspiring against-all-odds true story, though I am easily won over by a competent courtroom scene. Instead, the film works best as a showcase for character actors. Rockwell brings a humor and vitality to the role despite being limited by the material he has to work with. Smaller roles for the likes of Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis, and Melissa Leo are even better: total bite-sized delights. Driver has some genuinely fun one-liners, Gallagher is always a welcome presence, Lewis chews some scenery and Leo gets to deliver a nice bit of menace as a small-town cop.

Conviction is a film of good intentions, but it’s mostly one-note and one-dimensional. The tone and style is all TV-movie-of-the-week with a dull creakiness to its predictability. If it weren’t for the fine acting from the supporting cast, it would be easy to write it off entirely while urging those interested in the facts of the case to put Google to good use. As it stands, it’s a just-barely serviceable drama. It eagerly and unrelentingly hits its marks, but it doesn’t do much more than that.

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