Not many films make me feel sick to my stomach and not many make me feel such a profound sadness that I'm helpless to do anything but cry. An American Crime chronicles the startling and horrific events that led to the death of sixteen year old Sylvia Likens. The story we're told comes directly from the court transcripts in the case of Baniszewski vs. The State of Indiana. As the story unfolds we slowly spiral from a normal, small town world populated with youthful innocence to one of absolute and inexplicable horror.
The story of the events that led up to Likens' death is short and tragic, with many people to fault, including her own parents and sister. Her parents negligently entrusted her and her little sister's care to a woman they had only met once. This woman, Gertrude Baniszewski, was mother to a brood of children and accepted Sylvia and her sister into her home for the simple fact that she needed the money the Likens were offering. But Baniszewski wan't fit to care for the Likens' daughters and within a few months, Sylvia had become the victim of Gertrude's escalating abuse. Sylvia eventually became a prisoner in Baniszewski's basement for an excruciating 27 days, where she was abused and tortured by Baniszewski, her children and also a number of other neighborhood children. How could this have happened? How could so many people be involved in such a horrible crime? How could her own sister not have gone to the police before it was too late? After Sylvia died as a result of her beatings, Baniszewski's was found guilty of her crimes and sentenced to life in prison. Her children and the others involved were also found guilty and sentenced, each one eventually serving two years in prison. While Baniszewski's crimes are unforgivable, the thing I personally found most disturbing was how her example led to her children's and the other children's acts of cold, cruel, brutality.
The world we are introduced to in AAC is not sensational, on the contrary, it is simple, ordinary, common and comfortable. The production design and cinematography work in harmony, lulling the viewer into believing they are witness to a more innocent time and place and as the story builds the Norman Rockwell veneer slowly begins to chip away until it is displaced by a world of suffocating doom. The resulting effect is that AAC gets under our skin and disturbs us in a profound way since these crimes could have been committed in our neighborhood, by our neighbors and possibly by people we knew and trusted. Most disturbing of all is the realization these crimes could have involved us.
It would be easy to demonize Baniszewski and all the others involved in Likens death, but writer/director Tommy O'Haver chooses to humanize them instead. In doing so their horrible acts of abuse and torture linger and beg the recurring question: how could they have done this? When we see the faces of the children in court, we don't see the faces of psychopaths, we see innocent children with no explanation for their actions. Only Baniszewski herself comes across as a detached, delusional and remorseless criminal and Catherine Keener has to be applauded for somehow managing to add complexity and insight to someone guilty of such crimes. Keener's subtle performance aside, the standout in this movie is Ellen Page who breaks our heart when we watch her stripped of her innocence.
Before AAC, Page drew raves for her performances in Hard Candy and Juno. In both those films she played a precocious, smart assed hipster who had the world on the tip of her little finger. Here Page plays Likens as a sensitive, kind and considerate sixteen year old and when the world comes crashing down upon her, the suffering she endures is heartbreaking and convincingly rendered by Page. I'm sure few will agree with me, but Page's breakthrough performance isn't in Juno, it's in An American Crime.