An American Crime

A talented cast delivers a boilerplate recitation of horrific events in this movie of the week focusing on the 1965 Sylvia Likens case.

Written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, An American Crime (2007) was based on a case of horrific abuse inflicted on a teenage girl at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski in her Indiana home during the 1960s. Though released on Showtime and given an R rating by the MPAA, and despite a talented cast, An American Crime never rose above the level of a made-for-TV drama.

Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) Likens are daughters of carney folk who must go on the road. They leave Sylvia and Jenny in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a single mother with six children of her own. Baniszewski agrees to care for the girls for $20 a week. She becomes abusive when the payment arrives late, but by then the girls have nowhere to turn. Their attempt to contact their parents backfires when Gertrude finds out and punishes them further.

The abuse escalates when Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), becomes pregnant and Sylvia tells the man with whom Paula’s been having an affair, to shield her from his abuse. Paula complains that Sylvia is spreading rumors about her, and Gertrude beats and locks Sylvia in the basement as punishment. In the basement, Gertrude invites her own children to participate in Sylvia’s torture. Can Sylvia and Jenny escape before it’s too late?

When faced with a crime of this magnitude, it’s natural to ask why it happened. What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? Why were the children complicit in the abuse, and what does this say about the nature of evil? Like many true crime dramas, An American Crime takes viewers through a succession of events without getting inside the minds of its characters to address these deeper questions.

In 1965, 16-year-old Sylvia Marie Likens’ father paid Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman he barely knew, to look after Sylvia and her sister, Jenny, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Baniszewski’s horrific abuse of Sylvia accelerated over several weeks. Soon neighborhood children joined in, even paying to abuse and humiliate her. Sylvia eventually died of a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition. Paula Baniszewski and four teenagers were charged in what was described as “the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana.”

An American Crime generally follows these true events while taking some artistic license. Without going into gruesome detail in this review, the film omitted some of the worst physical and sexual abuse Sylvia suffered, including being made to eat feces. Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula, was portrayed as unwittingly involved, but in reality she took an active role in Sylvia’s torture. These changes served to weaken the film’s overall impact.

In contrast, The Girl Next Door (2007) pulls no punches with its sickening portrayal. Released on Starz a year earlier than An American Crime (which premiered at Sundance in 2007 but didn’t air until 2008), The Girl Next Door is a fictionalized account of the case but features a much less sanitized portrayal of the abuse. It ends with the girl’s abuser getting what she deserved, though in real life Gertrude Baniszewski served time in prison and was paroled in 1985. The Girl Next Door had generally positive ratings from viewers and critics alike.

An American Crime, however, was widely panned by critics, but generally praised by viewers. It currently holds a 29% rating from critics and 75% audience favorability on RottenTomatoes. Though accused by some critics as being akin to “torture porn,” it actually omitted much of the abuse Sylvia suffered. There are ways the film could have delivered a more poignant portrayal without being exploitative. Unfortunately, An American Crime suffered from lack of creativity, despite an admirable effort from the cast.

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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