Nothing is quite as heinous as child abuse, and no abuse more appalling than that suffered by 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis, Indiana. An American Crime takes viewers back to that infamous murder, starting with its innocuous beginnings on a sunny day after church.
Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jennie (Hayley McFarland) meet a couple of friendly girls after church one Sunday. The girls invite the two sisters back to their house to play, and all have a wonderful afternoon. Their mother, Gertrude (Catherine Keener) is a likable woman who personifies the mild-mannered housewife and nurturing parent. That’s exactly what Sylvia’s and Jenny’s father (Nick Searcy) sees when he comes to collect the girls for dinner. He sees the perfect opportunity for himself and his wife to pursue their carnival careers while their children are looked after, and makes a deal for the girls to live with Gertrude while their parents are away. In any other story, it’d be a perfectly unremarkable event.
It’s a busy house, and life goes on as usual – for a little while. Gertrude is a single mother who persistently pursues much younger men; quite often, her choices come from among her daughter’s suitors. Her daughter Paula (Ari Graynor), in turn, seeks the attentions of far older men, and prefers them married. But the truly revealing events only begin to appear after Sylvia tries to intervene in a bad situation between Paula and one of her married consorts. It started a domino effect which eventually leads to Sylvia’s gruesome death in Gertrude’s basement.
At the time An American Crime was made, lead actress Ellen Page was all but unknown. She’d played a bit part in the first X-Men film, plus a smattering of minor TV roles, but no one really recognized her true talents. While it’s not certain from this outsider’s view that her outstanding performance in An American Crime led to her future roles, she zoomed to stardom soon after with lead roles in Juno and Inception. At the same time, her character in X-Men took on a greater significance. She’s busy with new projects as of 2014, and makes headlines in the LGBT community. Let’s just say that, based on her portrayal of Sylvia Likens, she certainly deserves the acclaim and notoriety. Not many people could pull off such a role, but she did it with flying colors.
Opposite Page, screen veteran Catherine Keener was in all her glory, albeit in a role very unlike the ones for which she’s known. Keener often plays genteel matrons or depressed housewives (i.e. 40-Year-Old Virgin, Where the Wild Things Are, The Ballad of Jack and Rose), but this was the first look this reviewer ever got of her ability to play a true psychopath. Her talent certainly reveals how such a person as Gertrude Baniszewski could have fooled everyone around her for so long, and how such a crime could come as a complete surprise to a small neighborhood.
When I first came across An American Crime, I’d never heard of Sylvia Likens or this now 50-year-old case. In fact, because of its similarity in name to a cheesy Cary Elwes thriller, American Crime, I assumed I’d already seen it when I saw the movie pop up in the movie channels. By chance, it came on when I hadn’t yet changed the channel, and the story it tells left an indelible impression – to say the least.
The producers of An American Crime really do go out of their way to take the graphic element out of the movie. It could have been much worse, but I suspect they’d much rather have people watch it for informational purposes rather than torture porn. The movie even left out some of the more horrific details, but there are still plenty to go around in this sordid tale of a girl who was psychologically and physically tortured by her caretaker, and by neighborhood children who were encouraged to help. While An American Crime is based on a true story, bear in mind that there is some dramatization – most noticeable at the end.
Finally, kudos to writer/director Tommy O’Haver for handling this extremely sensitive and gut-wrenching subject. If you’ve ever seen This Boy’s Life, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, then you have an idea of what to expect in An American Crime – at the beginning. Before everything truly accelerates. The result is a poignant film that truly sticks in a person’s mind, and can also be very rough to watch. Obviously, never watch this one with kids in the room, and be prepared to shut it off if it gets to rough. An American Crime truly is one of those films that exists primarily to tell a cautionary tale, informing people of what can happen if they turn a blind eye to suspicious activity and child welfare issues.
Disclaimer notice: I have no affiliation with the producers of An American Crime, or anyone else associated with the film. I have not been offered compensation for this review by anyone connected to the movie. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.