Full disclosure, your honor: I’m a sucker for legal thrillers inspired by true events, even though the dramatic deck is always stacked so clearly in favor of the underdog facing off against the greedy, hiss-worthy, monolithic corporate entity. From the cynical protagonist who becomes a better person by taking the case to the reluctant whistleblower to the battery of high-priced lawyers smugly defending their client to the wise judge to the jury that sees the light — we know the formula, and we love it. The good guys always win, and deservedly so.
“The Verdict.” “Philadelphia.” “A Civil Action.” “Erin Brockovich.” “Dark Waters.”
Though not in the same league as those films, “Foster Boy” certainly follows the legal thriller blueprint, sometimes to credulity-stretching limits — but this is a solid and important story about systematic abuse within the foster care system, featuring an outstanding cast including a half-dozen seasoned veterans who know how to sell even the most melodramatic moments.
Executive-produced by Shaquille O’Neal and directed by Youssef Delara from a script by Jay Paul Deratany, who based the story on his experiences as an attorney in Chicago, “Foster Boy” stars Matthew Modine and his thick shock of silver-white hair as high-priced corporate attorney Michael Trainer. The ruthless shark flies from L.A. to Chicago to wrap up another lucrative case but finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Louis Gossett Jr.’s Judge George Taylor appoints him to represent Jamal Randolph (Shane Paul McGhie), a small-time criminal who for six years has been trying to bring a civil suit against the privately owned Bellcore Family Services for assigning a teenager with a record of sexual assault to live in the same foster home as Jamal when Jamal was just a child, with horrific consequences.
Michael is a right-wing conservative (he dismisses Google’s credibility as a source of information because it was “invented by a liberal”) who casually refers to Jamal as a “thug” more than once, and he just wants to settle this case and get back to his cushy corporate practice in L.A., but when Jamal — a 19-year-old who has no money and a checkered past and an uncertain future — refuses to accept an $80,000 settlement offer, Michael begins to experience an awakening. If Jamal won’t settle, maybe he’s telling the truth. Maybe Bellcore looked the other way and allowed a monster to move into the same home as Jamal, just so they could get their placement fee. Maybe Michael should get serious about this case.
The dialogue often plays like a Greatest Hits collection of familiar movie lines, including:
“You know, we’re not so different, you and I …”
“You have no idea what these people are capable of!”
“I got this.”
“You’re in my world now.”
And even: “We’ve been bringing a knife to a gun fight.”
Shane Paul McGhie gives a passionate and resonant performance as Jamal, who has endured unimaginable suffering since he was a little boy and has every right to surrender to anger and resentment and despair but refuses to give up on himself. Michael Beach and Michael Hyatt are heartbreakingly effective as the Randolphs, good people who have fostered more than 20 children and are racked with guilt about what happened under their watch. Julie Benz capably handles the role of the Bellcore Family Services exec who has sold her soul for personal profit.
Matthew Modine has been a reliable presence for decades, but he’s not the warmest or most accessible of actors. He often brings a kind of quirky, cool and mannered distance to the table — the perfect tool set to play the socially awkward, blunt and brilliant Trainer, who finally begins to thaw as a human being as the case heats up.