Ellen Page - Sylvia Likens
Catherine Keener - Gertrude Baniszewski
Hayley McFarland - Jennie Likens
Ari Graynor - Paula Baniszewski
Scout Taylor-Compton - Stephanie Baniszewski
Bradley Whitford - Prosecutor Leroy K. New
James Franco - Andy
Evan Peters - Ricky Hobbs
Genre - Drama/Crime
Running Time - 91 Minutes
Score - 2.5 Howls Outta 4
PLOT - Based on the 1965 story of Sylvia Likens' death [with a crime that's disgustingly shocking], AN AMERICAN CRIME uses the testimonies of the people who were part of this crime to tell the story in their words. Sylvia (Ellen Page) and her sister Jenni (Hayley McFarland) are left in the care of a single mother of seven children named Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) after Sylvia's and Jenni's parents decide to work on their failing traveling carnival. The elder Likens plan on paying Gertrude $20 a week, which makes the arrangement smooth at the beginning. However, once the two girls intergrate with the rest of the family and become two more mouths to feed [as well as her young boyfriend (James Franco) who seems to want money from her every time he visits their daughter], Gertrude becomes unstable, growing sick and becoming a heavy smoker and alcoholic. When Sylvia slips out that the eldest Baniszewski daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor) is pregnant, which spreads like wildfire all over town, Gertrude confronts Paula about it. When she denies the pregnancy and lies about Sylvia spreading lies about her that she's a slut, Gertrude decides to torture Sylvia in some of the most grisly ways possible. Whippings, jamming a glass bottle into her vagina, mutilating her body with cigarettes - it gets worse and worse as time goes on. Especially with the children invite neighbors to join in the torture as the community remains quiet about it.
STORY - Based on a true story, AN AMERICAN CRIME wasn't as effective as it should have been. Last year, JACK KETCHUM'S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was released, which is based on this very story. Obviously that film was a bit more fictional and dramatized since it changed the characters and some of the stuff around, while this one is more realistic in tone. Still, I felt THE GIRL NEXT DOOR actually told the story better and actually made you feel for the situation more than AN AMERICAN CRIME did. That's not to say that the storytelling in the film was horrible. Not at all. The dialogue was more than believable. The situations were terrible to watch and believe. The characters aren't really developed except for really Gertrude [which is one of the issues I have with this film], but this is not a film about major character development. But it felt like a TV-movie-of-the-week sort of film instead of an actual crime drama that tells you what happened and why should we care.
Like I said before, having Gertrude be the most developed person in the story was a mistake I thought. This is a woman who took an innocent girl who was not related to her and pretty much tortured her in ways I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. Yet, the screenwriters seemed to want us to sympathize with her and see why she would be so pushed over the edge in order to perform such an act! Look, I'm sure it's very hard to be a single mother - especially of seven children and then two more children added in. Plus having a jerk boyfriend who leeches off of you isn't gonna help matters. But what this woman did to Sylvia is inexcusable for ANY reason. Nothing is gonna make me like and understand this woman after a fucked up act like that. I wished the film would have given the same character treatment to Sylvia, yet she was just the victim in the story. Sure I felt bad for her because of what was done to her, but other than that? Just bones to spit out.
I also felt the film should have shed some light as to why such a thing could happen and no one would even tell the cops about it until it's too late. Yeah, things like this probably used to happen back then. Hell, they probably happen now. But there seems to be no intention as to why this film was made. Was it to recreate the horror of the situation? Was it to make people speak up if they ever heard about a similar situation in their own lives? What was the goal with this film? We already have THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. Why should people watch this one other than the fact that the real names were used? It was kind of lost on me.
DIRECTION - Tommy O'Haver, who directed ELLA ENCHANTED [what a change of pace], is good here. The pacing is well handled and the transitions between the testimonies and the events that led up to them are seamless. O'Haver also likes using flashbacks and what-could-have-been sequences as well. And he doesn't show us all of the torture Sylvia went through either. Most of it happens offscreen and it's implied, although the cigarette burning sequence was shown somewhat. This isn't a film to praise about the direction anyway, so as long as it told the visual story decently, it's cool.
VIOLENCE/SEX/LANGUAGE [aka THE GOOD STUFF] - A lot of implied violence. You see a couple of whippings, smacks to the face, and a very disturbing cigarette branding sequence. Other vicious stuff, like the bottle rape scene, aren't shown. Implied sex as well, but no nudity. And from what I can tell, the language wasn't all that dirty.
ACTING - Best part of the film. All the actors are good in their roles but the movie belongs to two women: Catherine Keener and Ellen Page. Keener has received an Emmy nomination for the role of Gertrude and it's well deserved. I would never empathize with her character but Keener really shows how disturbed and miserable this woman is. I think the character was toned down since she didn't come across as a total heartless bitch, but Keener does a fine job bringing this woman to life. Keener almost makes you feel a bit sorry for this hideous woman. That's how good she is. And Ellen Page is great as the tortured Sylvia. Anyone expecting her usual smartass persona like in HARD CANDY or JUNO are gonna be disappointed because Page plays the total opposite here. She's totally down to earth, shy, and innocent - which makes watching her character get abused that more disgusting. Page does a phenomenal job as usual and hopefully she'll do more roles like this so she can escape getting typecasted. She's almost there, I think.
MUSIC - Old school tunes of the time. Cool stuff.
THE FINAL HOWL
AN AMERICAN CRIME isn't for everyone. It's hard to watch sometimes and it'll anger you that people actually let a young girl be treated like this and not say a damn word. I just wish the film didn't feel like a TV movie and told the story better and actually showed more the violence [would have made the situation more effective]. I would probably recommend THE GIRL NEXT DOOR if you want more of the story's effectiveness, but if you want a toned down version with the real names and testimonies that were a part of this case, AN AMERICAN CRIME is a decent watch. Or just research the Sylvia Likens case. You'll probably get more out of that than you will watching this.