In the past year two movies were made based on the same true story of child abuse and murder, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and AN AMERICAN CRIME. Although both films are quite uncomfortable to watch, only one is truly authentic… that would be Tommy O’Haver ‘s AMERICAN CRIME.
Based on a true story that gripped the nation in 1965, the film recounts one of the most shocking crimes ever committed against a single victim. The daughters of traveling carnival workers are left for an extended stay at the suburban Indiana home of single mother Gertrude Baniszewski and her seven children. Times are tough, and Gertrude’s needs force her to accept this arrangement before understanding how the burden will push her already-fragile nature to a breaking point. What transpires is both riveting and horrific, leaving one child dead and the rest scarred for life.
Although the film isn’t exactly a horror film, it is pretty shocking. Until Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) is forced to masturbate with an empty Coke bottle, the film is pretty much a straightforward drama about a mother of seven who is forced to take two more children under her wing. We watch her slowly self-destruct, as the burden is just too much. When her oldest child becomes a problem (as most kids will be at some point), she refocuses her anger onto Sylvia. What transpires is some of the most sickening child abuse ever to hit the big screen.
It might appear that Sylvia is the only one being abused, but the fact of the matter is all seven children, and other kids from the neighborhood were all part of the abuse. When you’re young you’re taught to respect adults, so when you have a psychopath telling you to punish another child, one might think they’re actually doing good. AMERICAN CRIME is one of the most shocking crimes ever because these poor children were also mentally abused and will now be scarred for the rest of their lives. They beat Sylvia, rapped her, lashed her, burned her, and tattooed her with a paperclip.
The acting is what propels AN AMERICAN CRIME into becoming a quality film. Ellen Page, as always, is phenomenal in her role. Catherine Keener is shocking as Gertrude, flawlessly playing one of the most difficult roles any actress could. Other notable cameos include Scout Taylor-Compton (Halloween) and James Franco (Spider-Man), who all help bring life to this terrible travesty.
What’s so unfortunate about this film is that it’s really good, and incredibly accurate. Why is this bad? Because it’s a horrendous story, a story that won’t have a happy ending. No matter what path the film takes you’re leaving the theater feeling like crap. There’s nothing remotely safe here as AN AMERICAN CRIME is the most clean “torture” film ever made. As most of the torment occurs off screen or is implied, you still can feel it deep in your gut.
Tommy O’Haver‘s film is a masterful period piece; unfortunately not one anyone should WANT to see. But if you happen to come across the film or decide you want to hear the tale of torture, torment and child abuse, be prepared for the worst. AN AMERICAN CRIME is a cold, chilling tale that is sure to bring a tear to your eye.