An American Crime

An American Crime is dark and disturbing, but a story that had to be told.

Based on actual transcripts from the 1966 court proceedings of Baniszewski versus The State of Indiana, this true story reveals the most shocking crime that has seen the light of justice in the State of Indiana. This controversial film premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and was met with strong reactions from even the toughest film critics in the industry. It is as disturbing as it is brutal, and it just goes to prove that bad people are capable of some very bad things right in our own backyard. Sadly, this is life, and this is the real world, and there is not a damn thing anyone can do about it; until in most cases, it is too late.

Due to travelling road shows, professional carnival workers Lester and Betty Likens are forced to leave their daughters Sylvia and Jennie in the care of next door neighbor Gertrude Baniszewski. Abandoned by her husband, Gertrude already finds it difficult to get by with six children on her own. But a promise of twenty dollars a week from the Likens is far more than the loose change she manages with. Soon the girls settle in, and start to get along with the other children. Shortly after, a highly needed twenty dollar cheque doesn’t reach the Baniszewski mail box. That very day Sylvia and Jennie are taken to the basement and flogged by Gertrude, punishment for their parent’s inability to keep a promise. Later, Gertrude’s eldest, Paula, confesses to Sylvia about her pregnancy, and tells her to keep it a secret, more in fear of her mother finding out than to be branded the neighborhood slut. But when news about her pregnancy reaches the town folk, Paula immediately blames Sylvia as the rumor monger. Gertrude, along with her children and some of their friends then dish out unimaginable punishment of horrendous sorts, all within the inescapable confines of the Baniszewski basement.

Co-written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, Sylvia Likens’ tragic ordeal is portrayed with gut wrenching realism; thanks to great performances from the leads and an ensemble supporting cast. Catherine Keener as Gertrude first turned down the role, but later went ahead because she wanted the story to be told and called it her “darkest role” in a career spanning three decades. Simply put, Keener is as terrifying as Kathy Bates is in Misery, but at times much more. Although her claim to fame may well be Juno, the City of Indiana will always remember Ellen Page for her biopic role as Sylvia Likens- a girl stripped of her innocence at the tender age of sixteen. There are moments when it becomes painfully hard to watch Page although we are aware that she is only portraying what Sylvia must have possibly gone through. Even though the torture depicted in An American Crime may be hard for some to watch, browsing the subject on the internet will reveal that Paula and Gertrude did far worse things than that scripted for and allowed to be seen on film. Essentially, this is why the film works ─ by horrifying us with the fact that someone, anyone, could have done something, but no one bothered to lift a finger. Although restricted to a specific audience with an R rating, the uncensored version dubbed “director’s cut” is one of the most brutal movie experiences that blows the whistle on child abuse, that too, considering this was not intended as a theatrical release.

Made for TV on a shoe string budget, O’Haver’s re-telling far out does Gregory Wilson’s The Girl Next Door, a loosely based version of the same story released one year before this one. This is because O’Haver sticks to the facts, factual locations and uses the same names as recorded in the case. His script is brought out in an almost documentary style, flashing back and forth from the Likens sisters’ time-line leading up to the court proceedings. The end result is a powerful drama that by nature is not meant to entertain, rather hit you with a metaphorical sledge hammer and open your eyes to the harsh reality of child abuse. A definite must see if you have the heart and stomach for disturbing scenes of abuse and torture.

Rating: ★★★★☆


About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.