Joan is a hardened, emotionless criminal. Most of the other prisoners seem to be afraid of her and just leave her alone. Sister Pauline is a nun with a complicated past who wants to get a program started at the womens' prison where the inmates will train dogs for the handicapped. She believes it is a win-win-win situation. It takes a little work to convince the warden, but eventually she, as well as the female guard responsible for supervising the project, are fully on board. A lot of human drama among Sister Pauline and the women training the dogs takes place, as well. We quickly see many little ways in which the activity is changing all their lives.
All that said, Ellen Burstyn is, as she always is, the glue that holds this piece together. The woman can act! She can play anything. This time, uncharacteristically, she is playing a rather unpleasant and unlikable (at least initially) character, Joan Thomas. Ms. Burstyn is aided nicely by Laura Dern (as Sister Pauline), never one of my particular favorites, but effective here. The actresses playing the guard, warden, and the other two dog-training prisoners are also quite capable.
I like the way that we get to find out bits and pieces at a time about Joan's and Pauline's pasts and why they are the way they are. We aren't just smacked over the head with it constantly. The filmmakers did a nice job of interspersing the dog training scenes with the scenes of interaction among the women. I felt like I was going through the emotional highs and lows with them. Ellen Burstyn has an uncanny ability to rip my heart out just by the look in her eyes, and she does it again in Within These Walls.
Overall, it gets a B+ from me.