2007 SUNDANCE PREMIERE FEATURE! In the summer of 1965, a pair of carnival workers leave Indiana to travel with the circus, entrusting their two daughters to the care of single mother Gertrude Baniszewski. Initially, the two Likens girls bond with Gertie’s six other children, but a series of juvenile-rumors-turned-vicious push Gertie to the limits of her physical and psychological health. Pegging 16-year-old Sylvia Likens as the scapegoat for all her family’s problems, Gertie embarks on a series of unthinkable acts, transforming a story of one troubled woman into a bizarre study of mob behavior as she involves her own family and the neighborhood children in her campaign to punish Sylvia.
In this interpretation of the 1966 court case of Baniszewski vs. The State of Indiana, director Tommy O’Haver intercuts courtroom scenes scripted from actual court transcripts with a reenactment of the events that took place in Gertie Baniszewski’s home. 20 year-old Ellen Page is both endearing and upsetting in the meek and obedient role of Sylvia, who never talks back or defends herself even in the face of unimaginable abuse. But the real high point of this film is Catherine Keener’s captivating performance in the role of the troubled and possessive Gertie, vacillating between disturbingly abusive and imploringly sympathetic the way only a truly manipulative psychopath really can.
As the story progresses, the activities Gertie and her family engage in become increasingly disturbing. I found myself cringing each time Gertie called another “family meeting,” wondering (and simultaneously dreading) whatever disgusting and bizarre punishment she would think up next. The film becomes all the more upsetting as the neighborhood kids become involved, leaving viewers astonished that an entire community could allow this kind of atrocity to transpire without notifying anyone or trying to stop it.
O’Haver’s straightforward and explicit treatment of Gertie’s actions works for the most part, but there were a few instances in which I felt the subject matter could have been handled with a little more delicacy. Furthermore, a couple of fantasy-style sequences towards the end of the film really cheapened the harsh reality of Sylvia’s suffering. Something like watching a train wreck, “An American Crime” is both morbidly riveting and psychologically sickening – definitely not a film for the weak of heart.