Custody Review

Custody examines the thorny personal lives of the people determining a mother’s right to keep her children.

The final verdict of writer-director James Lapine’s Custody is that no system is perfect—not family systems, not the criminal justice system, not the social services system. Each one does its best by its members with the purest of intentions, but each is also undermined by very human flaws: misunderstandings, biases, and judgments.

In person, harried single mother Sara Díaz (Catalina Sandino Moreno) clearly loves her two children, unruly preteen David (Jaden Michael) and innocent Tia (Bryce Lorenzo), working two jobs and trying to keep David from falling in with the wrong crowd. On paper, however, it doesn’t look good: An argument leads to David crashing into the coffee table and suffering a cut and a concussion; the upstairs neighbor contributes a statement about Sara’s anger issues, due to a conversation about him not taking out his trash. The next thing she knows, Sara is in court, debating her fitness as a mother.

Further complicating the process are Sara’s anger issues, as she lashes due to a lack of understanding; her unwillingness to communicate important details to Ally Fisher (Hayden Panettiere), her state-appointed and inexperienced lawyer; and something completely out of Sara’s power, the ghost of Sofia Martinez.

A figurative ghost, of course—the solemn five-year-old was found starved to death by her negligent mother at the start of the film, and this failure hangs over every member of the social services system. Luis, an employee from the Administration for Children’s Services who signed off on the Martinez case (Raúl Esparza), berates himself for what he missed, while judge Martha Schulman (Viola Davis) tells one of her associates that it wasn’t his fault, despite him approving Sofia’s return to her mother. Each person thinks the tragedy is his or her fault, failing to realize that everyone shares the blame.

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Further, this guilt blinds them to the facts of subsequent cases, including Sara’s. So intent on not letting another child fall through the cracks, ACS and the legal system will search for any reason why these children should not be returned to their—overworked, defensive, but not dangerous—mother.

“I can’t help you if you won’t tell me things,” a frustrated Ally explodes at Sara after yet another setback. “I need to know about you, Sara.” Yet that’s the irony of the movie, as delivered in a too-tidy exchange of monologues between Sara and Martha during the final hearing: No one really knows one another. These people are supposed to intersect only in the most professional of circumstances, in the courthouse and the courtroom; only we the audience see the messier edges of their personal lives.

Sara resents Ally’s obviously upper-class upbringing and her lack of street smarts or real experience… yet Sara never thinks beyond getting her own kids back, or else she might have realized that Ally’s family throws its considerable money at some deep-seated problems, including one dark secret that better explains why Ally is so hell-bent on putting Sara’s children in the safest place possible. Ellen Burstyn has a small part as Ally’s grandmother (“always living in an Edith Wharton novel”), who feels her granddaughter’s distance as an acute pain yet doesn’t take her seriously enough to talk in anything more than bland pleasantries.

Still, even these extra dimensions feel rote; the wealthy family hiding its skeletons has been done before. You could say the same for Martha’s subplot, in which her marriage suffers a blow, but Davis brings extra heart to the role. We’re used to seeing her as the cunning, smoldering Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder; here, she’s more vulnerable, bringing more depth to the character of a middle-aged empty nester grappling with trusting her life partner.

Lapine makes some odd choices for which families he lingers on; as a result, several plot threads dangle without any tying up. Much time is spent on Martha’s two families—her husband and college-aged son, as well as her elderly father and supportive sister—perhaps to the detriment of the other characters’ stories. Ally gives her grandmother an ultimatum, the fallout of which is never revealed. The Sofia Martinez case continues to affect the lives of various characters, including Luis, gets summarily shuffled out of the story.

These are the people I would have loved to see more of—the ones letting their emotions cloud their judgment. The person who should be the most wary of Sara (Ally) is the most open-minded, while those who should know better (Luis) are overly cautious. In some ways, Custody feels like Crash for the social services system, but there is still a level of detachment, not allowing us to reach key emotional catharsis.

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3 out of 5