The Good: Well-acted, Good mood, Necessary message
The Bad: Thoroughly uncomfortable, No DVD bonus features, Unlikable characters
The Basics: When Gertie takes in two girls into her full house,she uses Sylvia as an excuse to take out her vengeance by tying her up in the basement and torturing her.
Those who read my reviews know that I've been on something of an Ellen Page kick lately. Every now and then, I play into the hive mind and accept that one of the up and comers is actually all they are cracked up to be and Ellen Page seems to have enough talent to be the next Meryl Streep (though I think, officially, Anne Hathaway has already been dubbed "the next Meryl Streep”). Page has range, a talent for comedy and drama and I've been getting everything of hers I could find. Admittedly, I slowed down after Hard Candy (reviewed here!) because that movie just creeped me out. When I picked up An American Crime, I had a pretty good feeling I would be creeped out again.
And, having watched it, I am, but not as much as I suspected I would be. I have a sensitivity about watching abuse on screen and what ultimately led me to pick up An American Crime (outside the presence of Ellen Page) was the participation of John Wells. While Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme get most all of the credit for The West Wing (reviewed here!), most forget that it actually John Wells who was the executive producer with them and after they left. Having recently rewatched the final two seasons of that series, I felt it was time I gave him his due and watch something else he was an executive producer on. And there it was, An American Crime.
In the mid-1960s in Indiana, the estranged Lester and Betty Likens seek to reconnect with one another and earn their living with a traveling carnival. Rather than take their two teenage daughters on the road with them, Lester leaves Sylvia and Jennifer in the care of Gertie Baniszewski, a mother of six who could use the twenty dollars every two weeks promised by the Likens for care of their daughters. Given that Sylvia and Gertie's daughter, Paula, get along, it seems like a good fit and the girls move in eagerly and everything seems fine.
Soon, however, things take a turn for the demented. When the twenty dollar check is late, Gertie takes Sylvia and Jennie into the basement and whips them with a belt. Paula confides in Sylvia that her married boyfriend has gotten her pregnant and while out one night with mutual friends, Sylvia witnesses him about to rape her. To protect Paula, she disarms the young man by telling him she is pregnant and to get off her. Saved, but now the subject of scandalous rumors, Paula tells Gertie that Sylvia is spreading lies. As punishment, Sylvia is taken into the basement where she is tied up, beaten, burned with cigarettes, etc. while Jennie lives terrorized by the fear that she might be next.
An American Crime is based upon a true story, assembled from court transcripts and eyewitness accounts, but that does not exactly make the movie any more pleasant. There is a pretty long build-up, but after a point, the viewer is simply a witness to the victimization of Sylvia and anyone with a sensitivity to that sort of thing (which, one hopes, is everyone reading this), the film is fairly graphic in its depiction of the abuse, especially in the psychological elements of it.
Still, it wasn't as graphic as it could have been. Director Tommy O'Haver cheats any number of shots and he's good enough to telegraph the film in such a way that anyone who has seen any movies on child abuse can pretty much figure what is coming next. So, for example, the final incident of abuse in the living room before Sylvia is tossed into the basement, involves a Coke bottle. O'Haver establishes a shot with the bottle and anyone who has seen Sybil knows exactly there the bottle is going by that point in the movie and while it is horrifying, it could have been even more unpleasant and graphic. It is graphic enough to be disgusting and unpleasant to watch.
Perhaps most horrifying in An American Crime is not the apathy with which the daughters of Gertie and the neighbors join in on torturing Sylvia, but rather the way the young boy, Johnny eagerly joins in on burning Sylvia. The herd mentality of the kids who come into the basement to witness Sylvia is terrible, as is the cult mentality of the daughters of Gertie in simply accepting and going along with beating the bound girl, but it is Johnny's eagerness to beat and burn the captive girl repeatedly that is most frightening and truly demented. In fact, while the final voice-over tells the fates of each of the characters following the outcome of the trial that frames the film, the fate of Johnny is easily the least satisfying to hear. Yes, at that point in the movie, even pacifists want some measure of vengeance against the little bastard.
The thing is, An American Crime falls into a category of well-done movies or television episodes that are easily classifiable as great at what they do but so unpleasant and difficult that it becomes almost impossible for me to recommend. In this case, I recommend everyone see An American Crime; Sylvia Likens deserves her story told and seeing the complacency of neighbors and family members might just shock some people into speaking up when they suspect such things out here in reality. But it's too tough a sell for the buy. Yes, there is merit to the work and it is frightening and it has a message that is worth absorbing, but it is hard to believe this movie is one anyone would truly want to return to more than once. In other words, it is good enough at what it does that we get it on the first pass.
Perhaps that is why the movie appears on DVD without a commentary track, no one really needs the movie explained to them. On DVD there are only advertisements for other DVDs from "First Look Films."
What An American Crime does have that is fairly impressive is a blend of young and more mature actors. Young performers Hayley McFarland (Jennie), Ari Graynor (Paula), and Tristan Jarred (Johnny) easily hold their own with the likes of James Franco (who plays one of Gertie's lovers) and Bradley Whitford (who plays the prosecutor in the court case that sets up the story). Despite the disappointment the viewer might feel in Jennie for not standing up to anyone to try to aid her sister, McFarland completely sells the audience on her character's fear. Indeed, long before she says the words, it is easy from McFarland's performance to tell that Jennie is paralyzed by the terror that she will be abused next.
Ellen Page gives a strangely mediocre performance as Sylvia. Page has the range to play girls much younger than herself and she does that well in An American Crime but the demand of this role is that she be less animated or cute than she appears in any of her other works. She does that only once the torture begins and then the shots of her are often with her unmoving and crumpled over, which - while great for mood - is not much of a performance. Page, however, comes through masterfully in the bottle scene. When one considers that this is a movie and Page as Sylvia is not truly being sodomized with a Coke bottle, the performance Page gives with her eyes and face is extraordinary and heartbreaking.
But it is Catherine Keener who knocks it out of the park with the acting in An American Crime. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy and she deserved it. Keener plays Gertie and while there are plenty of overt moments where Gertie is villainous and despicable, it is the quiet moments that Keener earns her keep on. Keener has a subtle twitch when men leave her. She plays Gertie with an undertone of lonely desperation that informs the viewer that Gertie is carrying on a long tradition of abuse, which she is passing on to her children now. This is one of her most distinctive and best-performed rolls.
Still, it is a tough sell for the "recommend" and while I can see the quality of the movie easily, I ultimately decided that the quality is enough to rate it high, but it's not worth buying. Yes, it ought to be watched at least once, but it's so unpleasant to watch that it's tough to see who would want to rewatch it.
For other works with Ari Graynor, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Fringe - Season 1
Fringe - Season 2
Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist
8/10 (Not recommended)
For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movie reviews I have written by clicking here!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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