'Custody': Tribeca Review

CUSTODY - H 2016
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A compassionate look at all facets of a wrenching family drama.

Viola Davis must decide if Catalina Sandino Moreno is fit to care for her children.

An odyssey through family court in which everyone is mostly right and a little bit wrong, James Lapine's Custody follows step by step the ordeal resulting from a domestic accident that, if it isn't 100% innocent, would surely be excused by any reasonable eyewitness. The fact that court officials must make life-changing decisions without ever knowing the whole story haunts this drama, coloring but never diminishing our sympathy for a mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno) whose children are taken from her. Stage writing/directing veteran James Lapine returns to the big screen after more than two decades with a film whose broad appeal is enhanced by exceptional performances from Moreno and co-star Viola Davis.

Davis plays the judge, Martha Schulman, who oversees the intake hearing of Sara Diaz (Moreno), whose son fell into a glass coffee table during an argument. The boy really did fall, and Sara is a loving, conscientious parent, but procedure must be followed, and once Sara's two children are brought in by the Administration for Children's Services, the wheels of justice will not turn backward. In her first court appearance, getting inadequate assistance from first-time defender Ally Fisher (Hayden Panittiere), who has no time to prepare, Sara is carried along by procedures she has no way of understanding. Instead of getting her children back that day, she finds herself committing to a fitness hearing next week.

From the start, Lapine is coloring in reasons for these particular civil servants to take every precaution before releasing children to parents once doubts arise: A five year-old girl just starved to death in a locked New York apartment while her mother was staying in a crack den. One of Judge Schulman's associates signed off on giving that mother custody; one of the ACS agents sitting before her now (Raul Esparza) was in charge of monitoring the child's safety.

Add to that the fact that representatives of the state are human beings with their own personal troubles: Schulman's court becomes a much tougher environment after she and her husband (Tony Shalhoub) encounter a surprising threat to their marriage. Rather than hone in on the fretful nights Diaz is spending alone as a one-weekend separation turns to days, then weeks of having her kids in foster care, Lapine's screenplay devotes most of its time outside the courtroom to Schulman's home life — and to that of the young lawyer, who grew up in a world of privilege where threats to child welfare were handled in a very different way.

The disparity between Diaz's world and Fisher's is pretty effectively established before, in its final scenes, Lapine feels the need to spell it out in a quick courtroom monologue by the aggrieved mother. However gratifying it may be to hear Diaz calmly vent these feelings in a forum where she has previously been made inarticulate by anxiety and anger, we don't need to be spoon-fed the story's moral — or to hear Schulman respond with a just-as-tidy explanation of the court's responsibilities.

First-rate acting is mostly matched by production values, though Lapine indulges in a couple of stylistic devices (especially when invoking the starved child's memory) that feel borrowed from second-rate TV crime shows.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
Production company: Lucky Monkey
Cast: Viola Davis, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Hayden Panittiere, Ellen Burstyn, Tony Shalhoub, Raul Esparza, Dan Fogler
Director-screenwriter: James Lapine
Producers: Lauren Versel, Katie Mustard, James Lapine
Executive producers: Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Daryl Roth, Sandy Robertson, Gregory P. Shockro, Jeff Elliot, Chad Moore
Director of photography: Zak Mulligan
Production designer: Alexandra Schaller
Costume designer: Anney Perrine
Editor: Miky Wolf
Composer: Antonio Pinto
Casting directors: Zoe E. Rotter, Ilene Starger
Sales: CAA

Not rated, 103 minutes