- Gertrude Baniszewski
Earlier in 1965, 16-year-old Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) and her 15-year-old polio-stricken sister Jenny (Hayley McFarland) were left by their carnival worker parents, who enlisted the help of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) to temporarily take care of their daughters while they were on the road. It's quickly apparent that Gertrude may not have been the best choice: the single mother has six children living in her home, including four daughters and an infant son, the hush-hush offspring of her tryst with young Andy (James Franco), one of many youthful objects of her wandering eye. Suffering from asthma, the smoker is also on drugs for undetermined ailments, but the lure of $20 a week proved too tempting for a woman trying to make ends meet doing menial chores for neighbors.
Sylvia seems to adjust well at first, bonding with Gertrude's oldest daughter Paula (Ari Graynor), who soon confides that she's pregnant. But two events soon seal Sylvia's fate: a money order from her parents is late, and in an attempt to save Paula from a potential attack, she blurts out her secret--which soon spreads across the school. Sylvia now finds herself at the mercy of both Paula and gertrude, whose misplaced anger finds the perfect punching bag in Sylvia. The innocent girl's popularity with boys sparks jealousy in the Baniszewski home, which also includes daughters Stephanie (Scout Taylor-Compton from Rob Zombie's Halloween) and Marie (the talented Carlie Westerman, who you may recognize from a handful of television and film appearances).
Gertrude--who initially believes Paula's lies--likes to make an example of Sylvia in front of her kids, and the abuse soon escalates to unbelievable proportions, with other neighborhood kids watching--eventually joining in. A handful of questions will scream in your head while watching this: Why didn't Sylvia or Jenny ever run to an adult to share the horrors? Why didn't any of the kids tell another parent? How could so many people stay silent about such an atrocity? Then I remembered: this actually happened.
These scared young girls growing up in the 1960s probably did what they were told out of fear, especially considering they thought their parents would be back in a few weeks. And just when I thought it seemed too sensationally awful to be true, I recalled an eerily similar case. On May 23, 2008, Dateline NBC ran "Conspiracy of Silence", which examined the 1979 murder of a 22-year-old student named Janet Chandler. The case was reopened after 25 years, leading to shocking developments that had my jaw dropping to the floor. It has some similarities to the Likens case, most notably the shocking groupthink--something incomprehensible to most of us--that led to a brutal crime.
Directed by Tommy O'Haver (who wrote the script with Irene Turner), An American Crime is a chilling watch that stays with you. While a lot of the back-story elements feature character composites and fictional incidents, a lot of it is real. The testimony that sets up the bulk of the story (seen in flashbacks) comes from actual court transcripts (Bradley Whitford plays the prosecutor). Page is almost too good, portraying Sylvia with a pure, wide-eyed innocence that makes her ordeal almost unbearable to watch--and I'm sure many detractors will label this as an artsy torture piece that tries to tap into your morbid curiosity for bloodletting.
But O'Haver shows compassion for his characters, and along with Turner creates a somewhat believable story that attempts to connect the dots with the facts. It's not an easy task: How can anyone explain something so horrible? How can we ever begin to understand the reasoning that someone so demented would use to excuse such deplorable behavior? It's a tough task, but the screenplay does its best to give us a somewhat believable look into the mind of a psychopath and the kids who refused to speak out. It creates a possible sequence of events--kindling for the wounded psyches caught in an emotional tinderbox. And damn O'Haver for trying to make us feel safe, relying on a few songs and some aw-shucks moments that give you a false sense of security in a seemingly innocent time.
Keener has an almost impossible role, and she does an amazing job. She wisely avoids camp--a level that would have destroyed the film--injecting enough humanity into Gertrude to try and make you understand her twisted logic. You see the cracks, and for the most part you "understand" where her anger comes from. It leads to inexcusable acts, and you may have a hard time buying that leap. But this is a 90-minute movie based on a real case...would you ever be able to buy into such a horrific transformation? Can you ever truly understand the mind of someone so mad?
An American Crime debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, but never made it to theaters, hitting Showtime in May of 2008 (earning Keener an Emmy nomination). The story may be familiar: Premiering later in 2007 was The Girl Next Door (not to be confused with the 2004 Emile Hirsch/Elisha Cuthbert comedy), based on the 1998 book by Jack Ketchum that fictionalized the Likens case. That story made the sisters orphans living with their abusive Aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) and her three sons. It was told through the eyes of young neighbor David (Daniel Manche, whose performance is the film's sole positive point), who witnesses the abuse inflicted upon Meg (Blythe Auffarth).
The two films are strikingly similar with the main story points, but An American Crime is an infinitely better movie. Baker comes across like a mellow Baby Jane, her one-note, zombie-like line delivery and overall performance single-handedly ruining any hope the film has. The Girl Next Door's script is also stripped of any humanity, practically ignoring the victims and relegating the torturers (here, the sons are equally culpable) to one-dimensional thugs. It relies much more on torture as titillation, and feels like bad community theater, a cheap staged version with awful acting. It also does a terrible job of believably situating David into the scenes (wouldn't Ruth make him leave?!). He conveniently shows up just so we can see the action through his eyes--he's more of a plot device than an actual character.
Not so with An American Crime. Despite the awful tragedy, there's still some depth to the film, brought to life by aching performances that demand your attention. As if I needed to feel any worse, I foolishly fell for a narrative cliché that ended up punching me in the gut, a highly effective moment that made me feel pain. And when dealing with subject matter so ghastly, I'd consider that feat the sign of a job well done.