The writer-director of the legal drama “Custody,” James Lapine, is best known for his work in the theater, particularly for his direction of Stephen Sondheim musicals like “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods.” He has worked sparingly for the movies, though he did direct the charming 1991 film “Impromptu,” where Judy Davis gave a memorably stylized performance as free-spirited novelist George Sand.
Lapine works well with actors, and he has placed at the center of “Custody” one of the finest we have, Viola Davis, who plays Martha Schulman, a judge navigating a difficult court case and a personal life that is falling apart. The main drama of the film involves Sara Diaz (Catalina Sandino Moreno, “Maria Full of Grace”), a young working mother with two kids who finds herself embroiled in a legal mess when she accidentally knocks her son into a glass table, which gives him a cut above his eye and a mild concussion. The boy’s school calls the Administration for Children’s Services, who are newly extra-cautious about all cases after a five-year old girl who had been placed back home with her drug-addicted mother was found starved to death in their apartment.
Lapine unwisely uses this dead little girl as a recurring symbol, opening “Custody” with ghostly images of her staring at the camera in a woebegone way, and he even has the ghost of this dead girl bluntly turn up when the prosecutor in the Diaz case, played by Raúl Esparza, is feeling guilty over his role in returning her to an unsafe home. There is an attempt at slightly complicating the narrative when it is revealed that Diaz has a temper that she cannot control when she is in court, and this draws the measured wrath of Davis’s judge, who is trying to do her best as her marriage to her husband Jason (Tony Shalhoub) falls apart when she finds out he’s been cheating on her.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep the film going, Lapine has also inserted a subplot about Diaz’s lawyer, rich girl Ally (Hayden Panettiere), who has her own tough family battle to wage with her wealthy grandmother Beatrice (Ellen Burstyn), a glacial woman who does not want to hear or think about the fact that one of her sons molested Ally when she was a girl and that he might be preying on other children.
With this much plot going on, you would think that “Custody” might have some dramatic muscle, but this is a tidy, conscientious, lifeless movie that plays out mainly in plodding two-person scenes that stand or fall on the involvement of the actors in them. Davis is a marvel to watch throughout: She never coasts, and her choices are unpredictable, unconventional, and always very present and vivid.
Davis is a great actress because she seems to be deeply considering every moment of her life on screen, a level of reflections that’s impressive and even comforting. She sets up Martha as strong and implacable, so it’s no surprise that her best scene here is opposite her father (Roger Robinson), as she stands at a window, crying a little and wondering if she is a loser. This glimpse of beaten vulnerability is touching by comparison to the talk-to-the-hand authoritarian we’ve come to know.
Martha orders Sara to get anger management counseling, but when she herself snaps at some workers in court, Sara mutters, “Looks like someone else could use some anger management,” raising Martha’s ire against her even more. Yet by the middle of “Custody” it has become clear that Lapine is interested only in resolving the narrative he has set up in the neatest possible way. There is never a moment here where we seriously question Sara’s right to get her children back, and by the last third of “Custody,” everybody just gets together to talk things through and work things out. That may be a smart thing to do in life, but it’s a dull way to wrap up a movie.