In a world where it seems every other movie released is “based on true events”, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. It seems that part of us doesn’t even want to know the difference. See, it’s all about immersion. Watching a movie is a leap of faith. You’re trusting the director, the actors, and the rest of the crew to introduce you to their reality and make it a believable experience for you. However, every so often, there comes a movie that is legitimately based in the reality of America. Usually it details horrific events we’d like to think could never actually happen, but those 4 words jerk us back into the cold, harsh light of day that sometimes things are just too awful not to be true. Such is the case with Tommy O’Haver’s An American Crime. It details the true life story of the murder of Sylvia Likens at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski and her children. The movie, which was hardly publicized upon its debut on Showtime, was later released on DVD.
When the film did finally receive attention, it was largely based on the performances. While most people singled out Catherine Keener for her portrayal of Gertrude and Ellen Page as Sylvia, the entire cast deserves praise. Ari Graynor, who some may recognize as the drunk girl from Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, is systematically psychotic and lost as the eldest child, Paula. While it would be easy to simply hate her, she’s just so pathetic that it’s difficult to simply hate her. There are moments where she’s just so sad that I wanted to sympathize with her, but then some turn of events would expose the malicious, calculating side of her that was merely laying dormant. Another notable portrayal is the role of Stephanie Baniszewski, played by Scout Taylor Compton of Rob Zombie’s Halloween fame. Although she’s not given nearly enough screen time, she stands out in the scenes she is in. She is the very definition of innocence lost as she watches in complicity, clearly disturbed by what is taking place, but rarely speaking out for fear for her own safety. These two actresses show such promise in their roles as the the Baniszewski children, which was eclipsed by the powerhouse performances of Catherine Keener and Ellen Page.
Nevertheless, although the entire ensemble is praise-worthy, it’s understandable why Catherine Keener was singled out for her acting. Gertrude is played with such quiet intensity to her. However, unlike most depraved souls captured on celluloid, there is never a doubt to her reasoning. This is not to say that she’s ever really portrayed as a sympathetic character, but Keener has such authenticity to her performance that the audience can’t help but believe that she’s convinced of every word that she’s saying. In a world that is mired with movie villains with broken psyches, multiple personalities, and just about any other imaginable pop psychology term,, Gertrude is seen as disturbingly “normal”. While it’s true that her socio-economic status and her family life are considerably less than ideal, she’s still, at heart, a shockingly recognizable, restrained and relatable figure. Once again, her actions are still mortifying and reprehensible, but she’s not given that over-the-top madness that so many movie villains are.
Although Keener was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her performance as Gertrude, Ellen Page as Sylvia Likens is just as worthy. What is most striking about the character of Sylvia is her innocence. Perhaps, as a product of Generation Y, this innocence could be mistaken as naivete, but to say Sylvia is naive wouldn’t do the character justice. She is striving to do right in a world that no longer recognizes or rewards righteousness. I’ll admit that several times during the film, I found myself wondering why she didn’t protest more, the events that she is put through are so overwhelming that these thoughts soon left my head. The most palpable emotion, even from Sylvia’s first introduction long before she is beaten, is pain. Her life is less than ideal and that type of dissatisfaction is portrayed just as heartbreakingly as her eventual demise. In all, Sylvia is a tragic character. However, what could have easily been a role that was simply screaming and crying, there is a dimensionality to the character. There is a bond formed with the character of Sylvia Likens that, while I admittedly cannot even begin to feel her pain, I found myself so invested in what happened to her. Once again, Ellen Page shows herself as a more than capable actress is the role of Sylvia Likens.
Maybe it’s the truth that lies behind this movie that makes it so disturbing and memorable, but the performances help bring these events to life. I had admittedly not heard of the Likens murder since it took place long before I was born. However, I would be remiss in not bringing light to it now. That is, undoubtedly, what Tommy O’Haver’s sought to do with this film. With the help of Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, and the rest of the cast, An American Crime is chilling in its roots in reality.