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American Crime

A movie directed by Tommy O'Haver

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It started as a white lie, and ended as the worst crime in Indiana history. SPOILERS

  • Jan 31, 2010
  • by
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.
It started as a white lie, and ended as the worst crime in Indiana history. SPOILERS It started as a white lie, and ended as the worst crime in Indiana history. SPOILERS It started as a white lie, and ended as the worst crime in Indiana history. SPOILERS

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More An American Crime reviews
review by . November 21, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Nothing at all.      Cons: Flat characters, story that doesn't quite make sense      The Bottom Line: If youire going to base a movie on real events, have people act.  If you like Ms Keener watch Capote, that's a crime story well told.  Don't bother here.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie''s plot.      An American Crime is an apt title; that is exactly …
review by . May 26, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
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 …
About the reviewer
Jonathan J.D. Lane ()
Ranked #118
I am a member of the US Air Force and presently serve overseas at RAF Mildenhall about three hours north of London. I grew up in Pappilion Nebraska and Crestview Florida, but since joining the Air Force … more
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An extended sleepover turns tragic for two sisters in this fact-based tele-film. After their carnival worker parents separate, Sylvia (Juno's Ellen Page) and Jennie Fae Likens (Hayley McFarland) move in with Gertrude "Gertie" Baniszewski (Emmy nominee Catherine Keener), a divorced Indianapolis mother with seven children (six in the screenplay). The kids get along, so the Likens figure Gertie will offer a safe haven until they return. Little do they realize she has a substance-abuse problem, a history of mental illness, and a layabout lover (James Franco). Even with the money the Likens send and the washing she takes in, Gertie can't make ends meet, so she takes her frustration out on her boarders. Since Jennie has polio, Sylvia bears the brunt of her anger: beatings, cigarette burns, and worse. Then when Sylvia tries to protect Paula (Nick and Norah's Ari Graynor) from an abusive boyfriend, Paula turns against her, too (Sylvia tells him about Paula's pregnancy). Like dominoes, the rest of the extended family falls in line. Three months later, their torture culminates in murder. Throughout, the narrative alternates between 1965 and the ensuing court case, in which prosecutor Leroy K. New (The West Wing's Bradley Whitford) cross-examines witnesses and defendants, whose testimony comes from the original transcripts. IfAn American Crime, which aired on Showtime, makes for difficult viewing, former Indianapolis resident Tommy O'Haver (Ella ...
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Director: Tommy O'Haver
Genre: Drama
Release Date: August 17, 2007
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: August 19, 2008
Runtime: 1hr 32min
Studio: First Look Pictures
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