Sundance Review: An American Crime
by Alex Billington
January 21, 2007
Before the screening started the director of An American Crime, Tommy O'Haver, gave a brief introduction and stated that we need to "submit to this journey", turn off the right side of our brains, and try to feel the same spirit that the cast and crew felt that drew them to work on the film. Interestingly, An American Crime wasn't as twisted and skewed as O'Haver made it seem after giving that speech, but is rather a straightforward period drama about a harrowing experience that young Sylvia Likens goes through.
Set in 1965 in Indianapolis, An American Crime tells the story of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) who becomes the caretaker of two young children, Jennie (Hayley McFarland) and Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) in addition to her own five offspring, including a baby. Gertrude is a deranged mother who protects her own children more than anyone else and becomes convinced that Sylvia is spreading lies about one of her daughters and locks her in the basement where she is tortured and beaten by her, her children, and their friends. It's a shocking and harrowing tale that even sounds unentertaining from the start.
An American Crime is one of the most twisted and deranged films involving a family to hit the big screen. It's a harrowing, chilling experience that silences the entire theater; a crime drama of perfect style and scripting, but with some troubles in its form and final execution. Keener delivers a spellbinding, vile performance of never-ending cruelty, yet stills seems too nice in some scenes and wicked in the next. As always, Ellen Page is incredible, even if her character is four years younger than her real age (19) and most of her performance involves lying still and being beaten. The biggest question running through my mind was would anyone actually want to go out and see this? Honestly, probably not. Although a fairly well-made film that maybe horror fans could appreciate, it doesn't deliver on a mainstream level.