I had the chance to watch this movie while I was at the Catalina Film Festival the first weekend in October. I hadn’t heard anything about it beforehand, but I know the festival director and I had faith in his judgment. So when he revealed this film as Best of Fest 2016, I was more than happy to give it my full attention.

Custody centers around a handful of characters who become intertwined in the New York Family Court system. The central story revolves around Sara Diaz, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno who gained notoriety for her roles in Fast Food Nation and Maria Full of Grace, whose two children are taken from her by child services after an incident in her home. Jaden Michael and Bryce Lorenzo play Sara’s two kids, David and Tia respectively. In the ensuing court process she is introduced to family court judge Martha Schulman, played by the wonderful Viola Davis. Schulman’s presence in the courtroom suits her well as a judge but leads to problems in her marriage that trickle down into her professional life. Her husband Jason is played by Tony Shalhoub who lends his patented brand of humor along with quality acting to the talented cast. Hayden Panettiere plays Ally Fisher, a Yale law graduate and the court designated attorney representing Ms. Diaz. Fisher also has her own set of family problems hinging on a strained relationship with her grandmother, played by Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn who rounds out the cast.

Director James Lapine also penned the screenplay. He had previously written the screenplay for the 2014 fairytale endeavour Into the Woods which I watched on a flight back from Nashville with no sound because I couldn’t find the headphone jack. So…I’m in no position to comment on his previous work, but the script for Custody was bold enough to tackle some serious family issues spread across the intertwining storylines and garner very strong performances from all of the female leads. Truly more of an ensemble, the film doesn’t have a clear leading lady. Davis had the main position of authority, but I’d would lean towards Moreno as her character was the catalyst which brought the all the stories together. She delivered another strong performance to add to her resume. The character of Sara Diaz required depth, passion and character progression. Moreno brought all of that to the screen wonderfully and her chemistry with the two young children provided a genuine connection for the audience.

Viola Davis was her usual outstanding self. She was forced to navigate tricky waters as she discovered and dealt with her husband’s infidelity while trying to maintain her high level of professionalism at work. The dialogue between her and Shalhoub was very well written and seemed to tackle the problem in a way that is rarely addressed on film. Panettiere held her own and then some. Her character, Fisher, has been carrying a secret that threatens to destabilize her family and derail a promising young career. Her progression is the most direct and poignant, displaying emotional growth and gaining much needed courage while working alongside Ms. Diaz. I hadn’t seen her on the big screen since Scream 4 but I’ve always had a soft spot for her since she stole the show back in 2000’s Remember the Titans and it was really nice to see the wide range of her talents on display again.

Zack Mulligan’s cinematography showed some glimpses of real promise, but dwindled after the first act as the film was mostly relegated to a courtroom drama. When the audience is first introduced to Sara Diaz, the camera work appears to be handheld as the shots are shaky and unstable. However, I think this was by design. Reflecting the world in which she and her children lived in as erratic and unstable, though it wasn’t a consistent visual theme throughout after the first act. Mulligan did have some picturesque establishing exterior shots (again, mostly in the beginning), taking advantage of the city’s architecture and natural light. The score and music didn’t strike me as particularly exceptional, but didn’t detract from the strengths of the film either.

What I think we have here is a story about three women all trying to do what they think is right for their families and for themselves, while trying to find the right balance. Each of them has a personal hurdle to overcome and it’s their interactions with one another that begin to change and shape their individual positions moving forward. This film also serves as a commentary on parenting and brings into question what place the government has and should have in how we raise our children. The film has a runtime of 104 minutes, but it does feel longer. The multiple plot lines delay the main part of the story and includes extra ancillary characters who work on behalf of the state.

Recommendation: Overall the movie works well and you do get some strong acting performances. This is a family drama, but not a family movie. Leave the kids at home. It isn’t exactly a date night movie either. I could see this movie struggling at the box office once it hits wide release, but the performances will garner awards recognition and most likely some nominations as well. If you are a fan of good storytelling and good acting, keep this film in mind. Really nothing bad to say about this one, but it won’t be for everyone.
Grade: B/B+