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An American Crime
An American Crime
Actors: Ellen Page, Hayley McFarland, Catherine Keener, Michael O'Keefe, Ari Graynor
Director: Tommy O'Haver
Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
R     2008     1hr 32min

"This," said Prosecutor Leroy New, "has been the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana;" the first crime of child abuse that broke through reticence and denial to register with the public. In Tommy O'H...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Ellen Page, Hayley McFarland, Catherine Keener, Michael O'Keefe, Ari Graynor
Director: Tommy O'Haver
Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Sub-Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Studio: First Look Pictures
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 08/19/2008
Original Release Date: 01/01/2008
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2008
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 1hr 32min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 9
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Languages: English
Subtitles: Spanish

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Member Movie Reviews

Deidra C. (Deidra670) from GARRETT, KY
Reviewed on 1/30/2011...
AN AMERICAN CRIME is extremely disturbing, one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen because it's based on actual events. The trial is taken from existing court transcripts, another bone-chilling moment as the children matter of factily testify to the commonplace torture in their household. AN AMERICAN CRIME is a portrait of the depths of a inhuman soul and her actions to a young innocent.

Gertrude Baniszewski is boarding two young girls, Jennie and Sylvia for $20 a week. Their parents are carnival workers who didn't want their children traveling across the country without a stable home life. What a horrific mistake they made.

After Gertrude creates a false scenario in her mind about Sylvia, the abuse starts and then escalates dramatically. Beatings with a strap, a rape with a bottle ultimately lead to Sylvia's imprisonment in the basement.

One of the more chilling moments in the film was the way Gertrude involved her seven children, even Sylvia's own sister, Jennie, in the day to day torture of Sylvia. Why did they do it? Why did the neighbors who obviously heard the routine screaming coming from that den of horrors, choose to ignore the child's pitiful cries?

AN AMERICAN CRIME is hard to watch. Scenes are truly sickening, but even more so when considering the event they were taken from. The movie will stay with you for a long, long time. AN AMERICAN CRIME forces one to look at the monster that very well being living next door.
2 of 2 member(s) found this review helpful.
Melinda T. (xsalezroarx)
Reviewed on 1/19/2010...
Great story, bad movie... I love both Catherine Keener and Ellen Page, but I think both were wrongly cast here. There are huge holes in the movie, very important details that were left out that I personally think should have been included. The things that were done to this poor girl make you a little queasy. Everyone needs to watch it atleast once, but afterwards if you're interested in the whole story, there are other things to be seen and read.
2 of 2 member(s) found this review helpful.
Jessica J. (JessyBird03) from MOORE, TX
Reviewed on 7/24/2009...
I thought this was an excellent, but disturbing, movie. I thought the acting was superb. I'm glad I didn't read the synopsis before watching it, because I was completely surprised at the twist at the end. I thought all of the actors did a good job at portraying their parts. The subject matter is sad and gruesome, and as a whole, we don't like to see that, but this movie deserves a chance... especially since it is based on a true story.
2 of 4 member(s) found this review helpful.
Meg B. (Megatron)
Reviewed on 6/8/2009...
I watched this movie only because Ellen Page is in it. I really thought the pairing of Ellen and Catherine Keener would make for a spectacular movie but, alas, that was not the case. If you are interested in this story you should really watch Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door.
1 of 3 member(s) found this review helpful.

Movie Reviews

Shocking, Repulsive...and Fascinating
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 05/26/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"AN AMERICAN CRIME is a problematic little reenactment of a real criminal case of child abuse dating back to 1965. The story is horrifying and while the film places the facts in our faces, the impact of the film is out of focus. This is due to the script that elects to glaze over the motivational aspects of a brutal crime in favor of attempting to investigate fully the mindset of both the perpetrator and the victims. Were it not for some sterling performances by Catherine Keener and Ellen Page this film might be easily dismissed: the strength of these actresses to overcome a weak script and manage to involve us is much to their credit as artists.

Indiana, 1965, and Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) is a 'borderline' single mother of several children who is asked to take care of Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jennie Likens (Hayley McFarland) while the girls parents remain on the road as carnies, promising to send checks to help support their farmed out children. Gertrude is a woman of loose morals who adds babies to her large family during liaisons with young men like the itinerant Dennis (James Franco). Gertrude takes in laundry to support her household and requires her young children to work toward the same goal. A friction develops between Sylvia and Jenny and the children by Gertrude's illicit adventures as well as covert sexual similarities surfacing in her children and at 'family meetings' Gertrude doles out punishment for Sylvia - punishment including cigarette burns, coke bottle insertions, branding etc. - all of which are undeserved and eventually lead to Sylvia's imprisonment in the basement where Gertrude and her children and their friends daily torture Sylvia. Eventually Sylvia dies and Gertrude and family are brought to court for charges of first-degree murder and variations thereof. The court proceedings (under the leadership of lawyer Leroy K. New played by Bradley Whitford) provide the story drivers as each allegation is then acted out by flashbacks until the verdicts are reached.

Catherine Keener is superb as the deranged, maladaptive Gertrude and Ellen Page adds yet another feather to her cap in a role that in another actor's hands could have been over the top. Writer/director Tommy O'Haver (the script was written with the aid of Irene Turner) does manage to show us the facts of this atrocity yet fails to go inside the characters to give us the psychobiographies this film has the potential for illuminating. It may well repel some viewers, but it does bring to the forefront a crime that is all too common in this country. Grady Harp, May 08"
Trying to "explain" the inexplicable
JLind555 | 05/25/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"In the summer of 1965, two young girls, Sylvia Likens, age 16 and her little sister Jennie, crippled with polio, were left by their itinerant parents in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a divorced mother of seven, in a blue-collar neighborhood in Indiana, who agreed to care for them for $20 a week while their parents traveled the carnival circuit. Three months later, Sylvia was dead, and Gertrude Baniszewski was standing trial for first-degree murder, accused of having engineered Sylvia's death by torture.

The film, "An American Crime", shown on the Showtime cable channel, follows Sylvia's last three months fairly closely. Gertrude Baniszewski, who may or may not have been playing with a full deck to begin with, progressed from slaps and spankings when the support checks arrived late, to more grotesque punishments after Sylvia "lied" about Baniszewski's oldest daughter Paula being pregnant (Paula actually was pregnant by a married man), culminating in Sylvia being locked in the basement and systematically tortured not only by Gertrude Baniszewksi and six of her seven children (the baby was too young to participate), but also by several neighborhood children who stopped by from time to time after school to join in the fun. Even worse, Gertrude forced Jennie Likens to take part in abusing her sister, threatening to do the same thing to her if she didn't. By the time Sylvia mercifully died of shock and abuse, there was hardly a square inch on her body that had not been cut, scalded, beaten, burned with cigarettes, or subjected to whatever torments the Baniszewskis could dream up, including scratching the words onto her abdomen with red-hot needles in letters two inches high "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT". The movie notes that although Gertrude Baniszewski started this particular act, she was too squeamish to finish it, so she got one of the neighborhood boys, Ricky Hobbs, to do it for her.

The film tells the story in a straightforward manner without any attempt to help us understand why these horrific events took place, and the director has come under some criticism for this. Perhaps there was no attempt to explain why Sylvia had to go through such hell during the last three tormented months of her life because there is no explanation. One can sympathize with Gertrude Baniszewski up to a point; she was abandoned by her husband to bring seven children up alone with no child support; she was pregnant thirteen times resulting in seven children and six stillbirths or miscarriages; and her boyfriend was abusive to her; but millions of other women have gone through much worse than Gertrude Baniszewski has, and none, to my knowledge, has systematically tortured another human being to death. Was her circumstances to blame for her actions? I don't think so. Was her mental state to blame? Or was the bad hand she was dealt by life responsible? Again, how do you explain that millions of people have had it much worse than Gertrude Baniszewski without resorting to the level of depraved savagery with which she treated Sylvia Likens? Did she just see in Sylvia something she had hated all her life and was determined to destroy? We don't know, and wisely, the director doesn't assign this as a reason for Baniszewski's actions. The film also raises the question, which was never answered in the real case, of why the neighborhood children turned into willing, even eager, participants. What kind of enviromnent spawns children like this?

The acting in the film is uniformly good across the board, with Ellen Page turning in a sensitive and well-nuanced performance as Sylvia and Catherine Keener giving a chilling portrayal of Gertrude Baniszewski. I didn't feel the movie was being made for its shock value, although what happened to Sylvia was shocking enough, nor do I fault the director for not indulging in specious "explanations" for the inexplicable. The film does raise a much larger question: was Gertrude Baniszewski mentally ill or was she just plain evil? Is evil a form of mental illness or an entity in itself? One can argue that question endlessly and get nowhere. We're left with a lot of unanswered questions, and perhaps this is what unsettles so many people who watch this movie. Some things don't have any explanation, or at least an explanation we want to accept. Sometimes even the perpetrators are left at a loss. "Sylvia wanted something," Gertrude Baniszewski said during her trial for which she was ultimately convicted of murder and spent twenty years in jail before being paroled in 1985, "but I could never find out what it was." Perhaps Sylvia just wanted to be treated like another human being.

Judy Lind"
It started as a white lie, and ended as the worst crime in I
Jonathan Lane | Crestview Florida U.S.A | 10/21/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)

"When I reviewed The Girl Next Door, which is also based on the case of Sylvia Likens, I could hardly put my thoughts into words. I sat in front of my computer screen for hours knowing that I needed to write something, but unable to find the words, which is somewhat frustrating for a writer. No such problem exists with this film, An American Crime.

An American Crime is more true to the actual events then The Girl Next Door, although it skips over a lot of the abuse and doesn't really give a clear picture of what this young girl was forced to endure during those few months in late 1965. Sylvia Likens, fondly nicknamed "Cookie" by her father, and her sister Jenny were two bright, energetic, and endearing teenagers. When their parents decide to go on the road with a carnival they are left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with seven children who is constantly sick and battling with depression.

The real life story of Sylvia is one that will forever haunt me. When police found her body on October 26, she had been burned with cigarettes and matches over a hundred times, beaten on a daily basis by a host of neighborhood kids from 11 to 18 years of age, starved, forced to eat her own feces, and a host of other atrocities that I cannot repeat here. But by far the worst torment she endured was a brand across her chest made with a hot piece of metal that said "I am a prostitute and proud of it." Sylvia, only sixteen at the time of these tortures, was killed in one of the most horrendous fashions imaginable.

So, which film, An American Crime or The Girl Next Door, is truly the better film?

When it comes to staying true to the original story An American Crime comes out on top. None of the tortures depicted in this film are fictional, they all happened, none of the characters made up, and only a few events fictionalized to make the story seem more dramatic. The problem I had with this film, however, is that it's really tame compared to The Girl Next Door and the actual events. Sure, everything here actually happened, but there are a host of other atrocities that are either skipped over or mentioned only in passing. Some of Sylvia's tormenters are given a free pass in this film, their own actions glazed over giving them a by that they clearly did not deserve. Paula was not the reluctant friends she is portrayed as in the film; she was one of the ringleaders of the abuse and often bragged about how badly she would beat Sylvia .

In the film there is a specific scene when, at a church picnic, she was asked by an adult how she broker her wrist, to which Paula replied, "I lost my temper with Sylvia, she's been doing some terrible things and I've had to be strict with her."

In real life a neighbor had come over to the Baniszewski house to pick up some laundry. When she noticed Sylvia in the corner badly beat up and bruised, she asked Paula about it. Paula only smiled and bragged that she'd given Sylvia those bruises, "hit her so hard I broke my wrist." The neighbor, of course, never reported this comment. Sylvia was dead a month later.

I thought, before reviewing the case for myself, that this film was exaggerated. It is not, in fact its incredibly tame considering the source material. If you think the film is gut retching, I dare you to actually review the case. Just the bare facts were enough to bring me to tears. This movie doesn't even scratch the surface of these people's crimes and the pain Sylvia must have endured.

But the worst complaint I have about this films is not its overly tame nature, it's the horrendous script and reliance on cheap Hollywood tricks that were, frankly, unneeded and violated the integrity of the film. This movie has nothing if it lacks realism, but inserted to the film throughout are many Hollywood tricks created to make the film seem more "dramatic" and "faster paced." Trust me; there is no need for any of that if you stick to the source material. The music is the first thing I noticed. It's loud, obnoxious, and distracting. There was simply no need for it a lot of the time. The films content can stand on its own two legs without us needing to hear overly dramatic music glaring in our ears.

Also, the whole "dead girl narrating her own death" subplot really undermines the realism of this film. She's dead; she can't narrate her story, and having her drift around as a ghost witnessing her own death and visiting those who killed her in prison didn't work for this films favor either. But the one part that infuriated me the most was the fake escape scene where Sylvia actually escapes convinces one of her tormenters to take her to her parents, and returns only to find that she never escaped at all, she died and is now wandering around like a ghost. In reality, Sylvia when she learned that Gertrude was planning on dumping her in nearby woods, did try to escape. She was caught, beaten until she passed out, and thrown back into the basement where shortly thereafter she died. The whole scene tanked the films credibility, in my opinion. Instead of staying true to the story and showing the death of Sylvia as it ACTULLY happened, they use smoke and mirrors to try to make the actual death even sadder. But they forgot one thing, YOU CAN'T MAKE IT ANY SADDER THEN IT REALLY WAS! The real life case is probably the most heartbreaking story ever told, why rely on these smoke and mirror tactics? The mind boggles.

A film like this needs realism and great acting. It struck out on the realism, but hit a home run with the acting. Since seeing Juno I have been a fan of Ellen Page, who plays Sylvia in this film. Page is, in my opinion, the BEST young actress in the business today, bar none. Every role she touches turns to gold, and her portrayal of Sylvia is far superior to Blythe Auffarth's (Meg in The Girl Next Door) portrayal of the same character. Sylvia is played perfectly by Page, who expresses the emotions and pain that Sylvia went through in horrific detail. Although the actual torture scenes were tame in comparison to The Girl Next Door and the actual events, Page made them almost unbearable all the same. At one point I actually had to stop watching the film. Page was obviously the better actress, but another reason this portrayal of Sylvia is superior to The Girl Next Door is because Page looks much younger then did Auffarth. Although she's playing a sixteen year old girl, she looks like she's thirteen. She's also a lot more passive then Auffarth's character, and takes the tortures and punishments with hardly a word of defiance or pleading.

In addition to the stunning job Page did, her co star, Catherine Keener Gertrude Baniszewski was also a home run. She wasn't simply crazy and moralistic like Ruth was in TGND, she was a struggling single mother of seven who took her anger and frustration over not being able to care or her children out on an innocent girl. She's more human, which makes her character all the more terrifying. She's not insane in the same way Ruth is (although she is still insane, just not in the same way), she isn't just punishing bad behavior as she sees it, she actually believe she's protecting her kids from the "bad influence" Sylvia has on them, although Sylvia never (the film and real life) actually committed any of the sins they claimed she did. Everything she does she does to protect her kids, but as we see in the end, she was really only protecting herself.

So I'm going to have to recommend The Girl Next Door over this film. Although TGND does add a few things to the story that weren't true, messes around with the characters, and has its own problem with an overly Hollywoodized ending, it is still the better of the two films and is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. Put Page and Catherine Keener in that film and we'd have one of the best films of all time. An American Crime just doesn't hold the same power, and commits far too many mistakes of its own.

Replay value; low.