Dir. James Lapine, USA, 2016, 104 minutes


In Custody, James Lapine takes the viewer to Family Court in Manhattan, where society’s most vulnerable people face the collateral damage of good intentions every day. Justice there is imperfect, and so, unfortunately, is this film. Yet Lapine’s ensemble drama feels like a project that originated with passion for its subject, which the film tries to present from many sides.

The matters decided in Family Court are unpleasant enough, but Zak Mulligan’s body camera adds a jarring note.

In interlocking stories that play like an episode of Law & Order with an insistent musical score, we learn how every character struggles through their life with a complicated family story. We enter the concentric circles of Custody when single mother Sara Diaz (Catalina Sandino Moreno) drags her young son, David (Jaden Michael), out of a party where children are drinking. He falls in their apartment and cuts his head. When teachers see the cut at school, they send him to the hospital. David and his sister are held while the matter is investigated.

Family Court becomes the stage for Sara’s battle to get her children back, and for a range of other melodramas. Presiding over the fate of the children is Judge Martha Schulman (Viola Davis), who learns that her husband (Tony Shalhoub) is cheating on her. Weighing over the case is news that another child, under the protection of the court, has died. 

The bearded overweight city prosecutor (Dan Fogler) is merciless towards Sara, but asks her lawyer Ally (Hayden Panettiere) out on a date. Meanwhile Ally herself was once abused by an uncle and learns that he is pursuing children again. Her family is in denial.

Before Custody, scripted by Lapine, becomes a trail of tears, it’s a trail of speeches, as characters vent their grievances, and set up conflicts that ripple into extended families. Lapine cuts away from his dramas to shots of the gleaming exterior of the Family Court building in lower Manhattan, and to the ensemble of august courthouses where we’re led to assume that other dramas are unfolding.

The now-silvery building was reclad a decade ago, lightening a sinister dark structure that used to evoke Dickens and Kafka. The interiors are now anti-septic, but overworked staff still face the same human predicaments. Courtroom scenes are as soulless as the setting, yet anyone familiar with this court will see that, if anything, the place looks too pleasant.

Viola Davis presides over families and endures the disintegration of her home life while Catalina Sandino Moreno turns up the volume in angry outbursts. The matters decided in Family Court are unpleasant enough, but Zak Mulligan’s body camera adds a jarring note. The score by Antonio Pinto (composer of the theme for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics) is as heavy-handed as the social service specialists who acted with the best of intentions to bring Sara to justice.

Lapine manages to compress all this human anguish into less than two hours. Custody may feel long, but it’s short by the standard of waiting times at Family Court.  

Production companies: Lucky Monkey Pictures, Mustard & Company, The Green-Light Group, JuVee Productions

International sales: Green-Light International, christian@glgpictures.com

Producers: Lauren Versel, Katie Mustard, James Lapine

Screenplay: James Lapine

Cinematographer: Zak Mulligan

Editor: Miky Wolf

Production design: Alexandra Shaller

Music: Antonio Pinto

Main cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Hayden Panettiere, Viola Davis, Tony Shalhoub, Raul Esparza, Dan Fogler, Ellen Burstyn