By Brett Mullins
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
An American Crime is a true crime exploitation film from director Tommy O’Haver depicting a brutal child abuse case in 1965. The film presents the horrifying facts of this actual crime; however, it seems to skip over much of the grizzly nature in favor of attempting an explanation of the motives of the characters.
Gertrudę Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) is a single mother of six children in 1965 Indiana. She agrees to take in Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jennie Likens (Hayley McFarland), whose parents took to the road as carnies for a number of months, in exchange for twenty dollars a week to ease the family’s financial troubles. Gertrude underestimates the strain on the family’s dynamic caused by the addition of the two girls, especially after Sylvia learns of the promiscuous nature of the eldest sister. Gertrude is terribly upset by the reality that her daughters share her loose morals, as she has an infant, fathered by a much younger James Franco, so she opts to punish Sylvia, who she blames for the faults of the family. The punishments escalate from a smack to the face to cigarette burning and glass bottle insertions. Sylvia’s punishments are witnessed by the entire family, including her sister and many of the neighborhood children, which they regularly participate in.
While the film features an assortment of wonderful performances, they are overshadowed by Page and Keener, whose roles are award worthy to say the least. If any doubts remained regarding Page’s acting ability in serious roles, following 2005’s Hard Candy, they were surely erased by her portrayal as the abused, yet spiritually strong, Sylvia Likens. Keener is able to maintain a perfect balance between an obsessive mother, a lover on the prowl, and a cold jealous woman with such precision that it’s easy to forget that this woman is torturing a child in her basement.
This film being a factual account allows its disturbing nature to manifest. This is to say that, if it had come from the mind of Wes Craven or Stephen King, it would undoubtedly be a horrific tale; however, it would not be able to retain the sense of realism apparent in the audience knowing that the events depicted occurred in such a manner.
It would be a bit of a stretch to describe this film as enjoyable; however, it is nothing short of an enthralling experience. This film reminds us of the depravity of child abuse and how individuals are willing to turn a blind eye to even the most horrific of situations in the name of fear and conformity.