The saga of Sylvia Likens remains one of the most disturbing examples of child abuse on record, involving not only Likens’ guardian Gertrude Baniszewski but also the latter’s six children and some neighborhood kids. This film was completed in 2007, the same year as THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, a much stronger dramatization of the same case. AN AMERICAN CRIME, co-produced by indie film hotshot Christine Vachon, at least contained the star power THE GIRL NEXT DOOR lacked, with the lead roles essayed by Catherine Keener and Ellen Page. The latter had been tapped for stardom after delivering standout performances in HARD CANDY and X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, although her work in the present film was eclipsed by two other Page performances that same year, in THE TRACY FRAGMENTS and JUNO.
Indiana, 1965: 16-year-old Sylvia and her younger sister Jennie are sent by their carny parents to live with the overworked Gertrude Baniszewski and her six kids. Gertrude desperately needs the money promised by Sylvia and Jennie’s parents, and when it doesn’t arrive in time she beats the girls. Sylvia gets in more trouble when Gertrude’s eldest daughter Paula falsely accuses Sylvia of spreading rumors that Paula is pregnant, for which Sylvia receives another beating.
Sylvia and Jennie attempt to call their parents from a pay phone, and for this transgression Gertrude burns Sylvia with a cigarette. The following day Gertrude goes even farther, forcing Sylvia to penetrate herself with a coke bottle before having two of her children toss Sylvia down the basement steps. Sylvia remains in the basement until, in Gertrude’s words, “she learns her lesson.”
In the basement Gertrude’s brats enthusiastically torment Sylvia, with several neighborhood kids joining in the madness. Paula starts to feel remorseful about Sylvia’s torment, but Gertrude remains steadfast in her conviction that the girl needs to be punished. She forces Ricky, a neighborhood boy, to brand the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” into Sylvia’s stomach.
The increasingly remorseful Paula attempts to help Sylvia escape, sneaking her out of the house in time for Ricky to drive her to the circus where Sylvia’s parents are stationed—or at least that’s what seems to happen. In reality Sylvia dies, and Gertrude and the kids are tried and found guilty of murder.
Director/co-writer Tommy O’Haver’s status as a Hollywood hotshot is evident in the slickly visualized nature of this film. Despite its indie film credentials this is very much a Hollywood treatment, toning down the more gruesome aspects of the case and accentuating the melodrama whenever possible.
The device of a criminal trial intercut with the protagonist’s ordeal is used to distance us from the story’s more unpleasant aspects, with characters talking about Sylvia Likens’ torment on the stand so the filmmakers won’t have to show all of it. The film has been praised by many for its watered-down approach, but as depicted here it’s difficult to figure out exactly why Sylvia dies in the end, as none of the torments depicted seem especially life threatening.
Catherine Keener acquits herself well but is too attractive to be convincing as a woman whose madness was driven at least partially by jealousy of the young and pretty Sylvia Likens. Ellen Page looks a lot like the real Sylvia but is never entirely convincing as a 1960s suburban teenager; her acting here has a strain to it that isn’t evident in most of her other performances.
Page’s Sylvia Likens is also a bit too upstanding in relation to the real Sylvia, who by all accounts was a sweet but rebellious individual who spread false rumors about one of Gertrude’s children. Other factually questionable elements include the depiction of Gertrude as a fundamentally nice lady (which the real Gertrude wasn’t) who subsequently showed remorse for her actions (when in reality she blamed her kids for everything). The weepy courtroom scene that concludes the film suggests Gertrude’s children were equally remorseful, an assumption that, like so much else about this film, is highly questionable.
AN AMERICAN CRIME
Fist Look Pictures/Killer Films
Director: Tommy O’Haver
Producers: Henry Winterstern, Kevin Turen, Katie Roumel, Jocelyn Hayes Simpson, Christine Vachon
Screenplay: Tommy O’Haver, Irene Turner
Cinematography: Byron Shah
Editing: Melissa Kent
Cast: Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, James Franco, Bradley Whitford, Ari Graynor, Nick Searcy, Michael O’Keefe, Romy Rosemont, Jeremy Sumpter, Evan Peters