An American Crime

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An American Crime
Against a black background, a tightly cropped image showing only Catherine Keener's glaring eyes appears above the title "An American Crime" in white. A similarly cropped image of Ellen Page's tear-filled eyes appears below the title, and just above the tagline "The true story of a shocking crime and a secret that wouldn't keep". The two actress's names appear above the two images.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
Produced by Christine Vachon
Jocelyn Hayes
Henry Winterstern
Kevin Turen
Hans C. Ritter
Written by Tommy O'Haver
Irene Turner
Starring Ellen Page
Catherine Keener
Hayley McFarland
Ari Graynor
James Franco
Music by Alan Ari Lazar
Cinematography Byron Shah
Edited by Melissa Kent
Distributed by Showtime
Release date
  • January 19, 2007 (2007-01-19) (Sundance Film Festival)
Running time
98 minutes
Country United States
Language English

An American Crime is a 2007 American crime drama film starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener. The film is based on the true story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Indianapolis housewife Gertrude Baniszewski. It premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.[1]

Because of internal problems with the film's original distributor, First Look International, the film was not released theatrically. The Showtime television network officially premiered An American Crime on May 10, 2008.[2]

The film was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Primetime Emmy (both for Keener's performance), and a Writers Guild of America Award.


In 1965, sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) and her disabled 15-year-old sister, Jenny (Hayley McFarland) enjoy themselves at a carnival circuit. Their parents, Lester (Nick Searcy) and Betty (Romy Rosemont), who work at the carnival circuit, reconcile their previously estranged relationship and agree to go on a tour together. To cope with these changes, they decide to leave the Likens sisters in the care of an impoverished single mother named Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), since they have befriended her children at church.

Gertrude agrees to this since the parents have promised to pay her $20 per week to take care of the Likens sisters. Their stay is initially pleasant, until Lester’s weekly payment fails to arrive. Infuriated, Gertrude whips the sisters with a belt in the basement. The payment, along with a letter from the parents, nevertheless arrives but Gertrude intentionally discards the letter and says nothing to the Likens girls. Her daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), is later upset when Sylvia informs her abusive boyfriend about her secret pregnancy. Gertrude forces Sylvia to apologize for “spreading lies” and has her son Johnny (Tristan Jarred) restrain Sylvia so that Paula could beat her.

The rumors surrounding Paula’s pregnancy soon circulate around their school. Meanwhile, Jenny discovers the letter in the trash, prompting Sylvia to call them. The Baniszewski children notice her calling her parents and inform their mother. Gertrude believes that they stole the money from her to make the call (in reality, they traded empty Coke bottles in for money) and burns Sylvia’s hand with a cigarette. The abuse escalates as Gertrude accuses Sylvia of flirting with Andy, the father of Gertrude infant son, and starting more rumors. then forces Sylvia to insert an empty glass Coke bottle up her skirt in front of her children and orders Johnny and Stephanie's (Scout Taylor-Compton) boyfriend Coy Hubbard (Jeremy Sumpter) to push her down the basement stairs and lock her in.

Gertrude assures a fearful Jenny that Sylvia will stay in the basement “until she learns her lesson”. To cover up the situation, she instructs her children to maintain the fiction that Sylvia was sent to juvenile for her bad influence. With Gertrude’s knowledge and approval, Johnny regularly invites the neighborhood children to the basement to beat and burn Sylvia for fun. Paula soon feels guilty and tells her mother that she believes that Sylvia has been punished enough. Gertrude ignores her, but the local Reverend (Michael O'Keefe) arrives, hinting that Paula has confessed to him about her pregnancy and Sylvia’s ongoing abuse. Gertrude tells him that Sylvia was sent to juvenile. Once the Reverend leaves, Gertrude orders everyone into the basement.

In the basement, Gertrude restrains Sylvia on the floor and begins branding the words “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!” on her abdomen with a heated needle. When Gertrude is unable to finish, she forces her teenage neighbor Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters) to continue the branding. That night, Paula quietly helps Sylvia escape from the basement. Gertrude is awakened by Shirley and tries to prevent Sylvia's escape, but Paula stops her. Ricky finds her and drives her to her parents, who are horrified at Sylvia’s condition as she lifts her shirt up and shows them her branded wound in her stomach. Sylvia tells them that the only reason why Jenny lied about them bein

ng fine was because she was afraid of Gertrude. They drive back to the Baniszewski household to make sure Jenny is okay. Sylvia walks inside the house and oversees a distraught and crying Stephanie leaning over her dead body, begging her to breathe, Rycki trying to help bring her back, Shirley and Marie watching them while hugging each other crying, and a depressed Jenny, revealing that the escape was just a hallucination . Ricky runs to the telephone booth to call 911. Gertrude believes that Sylvia is faking it until Stephanie announces to the cops that Sylvia is dead as soon as they show up. Marie and Shirley, devastated, run upstairs.

When the police arrive, one of the officers ask Ricky what happened. Jenny approaches and replies for Ricki, telling the officer to get her out of the house and she’ll explain. At a murder trial, Jenny reveals to the prosecutor that Sylvia did not do anything to hurt Gertrude or anyone else and that Gertrude threatened her with the same treatment if she told anyone the truth. Gertrude denies any wrongdoing and blames her children and their friends for Sylvia’s death. Despite this, she is declared guilty of first-degree murder and is sentenced to life in prison. Sylvia's voiceover also narrates the fates of her other murderers. In her prison cell, Gertrude sees Sylvia’s ghost but before she attempts to apologize, the ghost disappears. It is also revealed that Gertrude was released on parole in 1985 but died five years later. The ghost of Sylvia visits her parents’ carnival circuit, where she states that it was the only place she ever felt safe. The film ends with ghost Sylvia riding one of the horses on the carousel in her parents’ carnival.



Principal photography took place in 2006. Most of the cast were completely unaware of the real Likens murder until after they read the script, which was based largely on actual court transcripts from the case. Catherine Keener originally turned down the role of Gertrude Baniszewski; however, after she could not get the story out of her head, she met with director Tommy O'Haver and agreed to do the film.[1] Ellen Page was the only choice to play Sylvia Likens.

Critical reception[edit]

The film received negative reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 23%, based on 13 reviews, with an average rating of 4/10.[3] Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times called the film, " of the best television movies to appear in years" and praised Catherine Keener's portrayal of Gertrude Baniszewski.[4]

See also[edit]

  • The Girl Next Door, another film loosely based on the Likens case, released in the same year.


  1. ^ a b Broeske, Pat H. (January 13, 2007). "A Midwest Nightmare, Too Depraved to Ignore". New York Times. Retrieved September 7, 2011. 
  2. ^ "TV Tonight: An American Crime on Showtime". BuzzSugar. May 10, 2008.
  3. ^ "An American Crime". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 29, 2013. 
  4. ^ Bellafonte, Ginia (May 10, 2008). "Home-Grown, Everyday Sadism". The New York Times. Retrieved September 9, 2011. 

External links[edit]