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An American Crime with Ellen Page & Catherine Keener -A Movie Review Based on the 1965 Abuse of Sylvia Likens in Indiana

Updated on October 22, 2015
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As Sylvia (Ellen Page) and her sister Jennie (Hayley McFarland) head back from church on the bus one Sunday afternoon, a pair of friendly girls invite them over to play. All of the girls get along fantastically well. When Jennie's and Sylvia's father comes by later to retrieve them, the friendly matron of the house, Gertrude (Catherine Keener) offers to watch the girls for him while he and his wife travel with the carnivals. Of course, this service can only be done for a small fee, but it's more than a fair trade to not have to drag their children along. From such benign beginnings, a nightmare is born.

While life in Gertrude's busy house seems to be completely normal, it soon becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. Gertrude is the single housewife and mother with a particular attraction for much younger men. Paula (Ari Graynor), her oldest daughter, follows her mother's lead -- except her targets are married men far older than herself. After attempting to save Paula from a potentially bad situation with one of her suitors, Sylvia unwittingly triggers an unprecedented chain of events that would prove to these sisters -- and the entire world -- how deeply deranged this family really is.

When I first watched this movie I had never even heard of the Sylvia Likens case. In fact, I’d previously skipped over this movie repeatedly while surfing the movie channels; at first glance, it appeared to be American Crime, a film I'd already seen. By chance, one night I stumbled across it anyway -- and suffice to say, it left quite an impression. The movie is based on a true story, and though the creators took steps to prevent its being too graphic, the content is still quite disturbing. This young girl was beaten, burned, cut, branded, and had many other forms of torture practiced upon her by her caretaker -- with the help of the other members of the house and children around the neighborhood. According to some research since watching the film, it appears that a lot was left out. The film included enough to really drive the point home, and really horrify viewers.

As I've mentioned, I stumbled across this film by accident, so I honestly don't know how it was received by the public at large. That said, despite watching an average of 400 movies a year, I had never heard of it -- and I'm at a bit of a loss as to why that is. While the American Crime is certainly quite disturbing, the acting is superb and the story stays quite close to actual events. In addition, it will definitely leave an indelible impression on any viewer. That said, though it is based on a true story, there is still an element of drama that will keep viewers engaged. Namely, the end is fairly dramatized and met with mixed reviews, though I thought it was well-done and did have quite a lot of impact.

I doubt anyone could have done a better job of portraying Gertrude Baniszewski; her role progressed seamlessly from harmless housewife to demonic abuser. This role could possibly shed a little light on how someone could be fooled by a person capable of committing such crimes against a young girl. Ellen Page has become fairly well-known for her controversial title role in Juno, as well as her role in Hard Candy and a comparatively minor role in X-Men: The Last Stand. At the time this film came out, however, she was a relative unknown. Her diverse talents showed through in every bit of this role, possibly cuing agents and casting directors that this is certainly an actress to keep an eye on. All I can say is, this film left me eager to see more from her.

There's no doubt in my mind that the sensitive and disturbing nature of this story made it difficult to build a movie around, but writer/director Tommy O’Haver handled the challenge exceptionally well. O' Haver created a poignant film with only a couple of minor pacing hiccups. This is certainly not a film recommended for everyone due to the disturbing content, but it depicts a tale that needs to be remembered as much as A Child Called It, if for nothing else than to hopefully prevent history from repeating itself.

An American Crime trailer

Facts about the Likens case that differed from the movie's depiction

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    • anabrea profile image

      anabrea 

      7 years ago from North Andover, Massachusetts

      Intriguing film and well written review, thanks.

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