One of the questions I've most heard being asked about An American Crime by those who haven't seen it is: Why would anyone want to make a movie about the brutal torture and murder of a 16-year-old girl? The answer, at least as director Tommy O'Haver gave at the world premiere of the film at Sundance, was two-fold. First, that the case happened when he was a teenager living in Indiana, and the murder of Sylvia Likens has haunted him his entire life; and second, that he wanted to explore and try to understand how such a horrific series of events happened. The basic facts of the tragic death of Sylvia Likens are well-known; numerous books and case studies have been written about the case. Sylvia (Ellen Page) and her younger sister Jenny, who had polio, were left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) by their father Lester, a carnival worker, so that he and his wife could go work the circuit. Lester Likens had only met Gertrude one time before he agreed to leave his daughters in her care for $20 a week.
The girls were only supposed to be there a few weeks, but their parents extended their circuit and then stopped sending the money they had promised to pay for the girls' care. Before they got around to picking their girls up, it was too late for Sylvia -- she had been brutally beaten, burned, starved and tortured to death in the basement of the Baniszewski home. That alone was bad enough to rivet a nation in 1965, but what made the case even more complexing was that much of the torture of Sylvia Likens was committed by Gertrude's five older children, along with neighbor children -- kids who had known Sylvia, however briefly, from school and church. How could such a horrible crime take place, with children involved? Other adults had heard that Sylvia was being abused -- the next-door neighbors heard her screams as she was burned and beaten -- and yet no one intervened to help her.
The film is difficult to watch; although O'Haver considerably tones down the violence and tries to avoid being gratuitous (what we see in the film is just a fraction of what Sylvia endured before she died), there's just nothing fun about seeing a young girl brutalized. What O'Haver does, however, is try to examine the case from the angle of trying to understand the whys and wherefores of what really happened. Toward that end, the script, co-written by Irene Turner, attempts to let us inside Gertrude's mind at the time the Likens sisters came into her care. Gertrude had six children -- five by her first husband, who sent checks only infrequently, and a baby by her 22-year-old boyfriend, Andy (James Franco). She was both a heavy smoker and an asthma sufferer, and drank phenobarbital, a very powerful drug, almost constantly. Nonetheless, when the Likens sisters first moved in things were fine. All that changed when Gertrude's oldest daughter,
Paula, 16, got pregnant by her married lover. Paula confided in Sylvia but swore her to secrecy. One night, though, when Paula tried to see her lover, he got violent. Sylvia, who had followed to make sure Paula was okay, yelled at him to stop hurting Paula because she was pregnant. Paula, furious that Sylvia told her secret, told her mother that Sylvia was spreading lies that Paula is a slut, and that Sylvia has herself been loose with boys. From that point on, things for Sylvia got worse and worse in the Baniszewski house. Catherine Keener, in a mesmerizing performance, portrays Gertrude as a tangled knot of contradictions. She loved her children fiercely and wanted to protect them, and once she got it into her head that Sylvia was a "bad girl" she was determined to punish her, to set an example for her own daughters. Gertrude herself was something of a bad girl -- she had Paula when she was just a teenager, and her youngest child was the product of an illicit relationship with a local man, Andy (James Franco), who is just 22.
She also flirted with teenager Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters), a neighbor boy who has a crush on Sylvia, offering him alcohol and cigarettes. Gertrude controlled her kids the only way she could through the haze of illness and narcotics -- she punished them physically for their transgressions. In Sylvia's case, though, there is no love to mitigate the brutality of her punishments, even though Sylvia is innocent of everything of which Gertrude accuses her. Ellen Page turns in a brave and deeply moving performance as Sylvia. Page said in the post-show Q&A that to prepare for the role, she researched and read everything she could find about the case, including studying the psychology of torture victims, and that attention to detail shows. Keener, always a versatile actress, takes on the challenge of portraying perhaps one of the most unlikable villains in the history of true crime, and tries to find the humanity buried somewhere within her.
The Baniszewski household at the time Lester Likens dropped his daughters off there was a pressure cooker waiting to go off, but that doesn't explain the Lord of the Flies mob mentality of the neighborhood kids involved, or the indifference of the neighbors. I've heard folks discussing this film say things like, "I don't buy that she wouldn't have just left," or "Why didn't they tell their parents the one time they had them on the phone, this woman is hurting us, help us!" Why did the Baniszewski children and the neighborhood kids turn on Sylvia? Why did none of them, including Jenny Likens, every tell a teacher at school or their pastor or parents that Sylvia was being held captive in the basement? Even the court transcripts don't provide answers to those questions.
This is a film based on the facts presented in the court transcripts from Gertrude's trial, and the fact is that Sylvia didn't leave. Even now, 40 years later, kids are abused and killed by adults all the time, and don't ask for help from teachers or pastors; even now, parents abuse kids and neighbors don't report screams and bruises. The real question at the heart of An American Crime, then, is not just how the Sylvia Likens case could have happened, but why situations like this happen at all -- and still do.