An American Crime is a frustrating film: the more I think about it, the more it winds up feeling like a reasonably well-dramatized Wikipedia article.
The movie is based on the horrific real life murder of Sylvia Likens, a sixteen-year-old girl who died of months of systematic torture and neglect. Her parents left her and her younger sister with Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman they were only slightly acquainted with, while they resumed traveling for their carnival jobs. Over the next few months, Baniszewski treated Sylvia Likens to a vile, seemingly endless series of beatings, humiliations, and sexual degradations–and, through a combination of persuasion and permission, made torturing Sylvia to death a past-time for her children and the neighborhood kids generally.
An American Crime gives audiences, well… that. Catherine Keener makes an angry, hopeless Gertrude; a young Ellen Page does a great job evoking both childhood innocence and fear, confusion, and torment. Their performances are solid, but not extraordinary enough for me to recommend the film purely on those merits.
Bradley Whitford, in a particularly emotionally useless, cowardly bit of storytelling, plays the prosecutor at the inevitable trial, and it’s not Whitford’s fault that his character’s role in the film is to gravely, softly draw our attention to How Incomprehensible All This Is, provide cuts to take us away from more graphic abuse, and repeatedly emphasize that Sylvia didn’t do any of the things Baniszewski accused her of. She didn’t shoplift or sleep around or spread gossip. She went to church all the time. She didn’t, Whitford hammers home, even get angry at the people slowly torturing her to death. It seems entirely true that Sylvia Likens was a sweet, well-behaved young girl, but after a certain amount of overemphasis of this, the treatment of her character feels less tragic and more disconcertingly pornographic. We have to have it endlessly reiterated that Sylvia didn’t “deserve” her “punishments,” as if she ever could, for example, have deserved to have I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT burned into her stomach. Not even content with the real life Likens’s actual experiences and personality, the film goes the extra mile, adding in a cheap, manipulative hallucination sequence where two of Sylvia’s former persecutors finally come to her rescue, helping her out of the house and away, leading her to her loving, horrified parents. It is, of course, an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” interlude–Sylvia will later reenter the Baniszewski house to see herself dying on the floor. Did we make you cry yet?
This is not an attempt to empathize with Sylvia Likens. It’s an attempt to turn her suffering into a tearjerker film with pretensions of exploring the banality of evil–mostly by showing you people doing things and then cutting to them in court professing that they don’t know why they did them. It grapples with nothing. It has no point of view. It’s someone reading out all the horrible things done to this girl and then saying, “Isn’t that awful?” at the end. “I just don’t understand people.” (The film’s idea of subtlety is giving us Sylvia’s agonized screams and then cutting to neighbors overhearing them and saying out loud, “Best not to get involved.” And in case you missed the point, dead Sylvia’s voiceover says that at least after her death people started talking about things they hadn’t talked about before, which makes this movie the longest, most needlessly horrific PSA.)
When the film is effective, it’s effective primarily because of the horror of it all. It’s effective because Likens lived and died and this movie acknowledges that, and any acknowledgement of it, in any detail, can’t help but hurt.
Ordinarily, you’d think a pseudo-courtroom drama adaptation of a real life tragedy would be more respectful to the victim and her death than a horror novel’s take on it, but I’d passionately argue against that here. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the Likens case, and maybe it’s partly that “loosely,” the change of names and place and even time, that untethers Ketchum from any threat of sanctimoniousness and brings him to a real, uncomfortable empathy. The Girl Next Door, unlike An American Crime, has a point of view beyond just “person belatedly finding out about all this and being horrified by it.” It’s told from the perspective of a young boy on the fringes of the torture, someone who observed nearly all of what happened to Meg (the Sylvia stand-in) but did nothing until it was too late, a boy too weak for heroism. Ketchum understands his narrator and he understands the other children, too, the lure of violence, the thrill of permission, the sadism of long afternoons.
The violence is vivid, grotesque, prolonged–no cuts to a morally upright prosecutor here–and purposeful; the guilt over it is immediate and omnipresent and never relieved. It bears witness to the uselessness of pain, which is not a transcendent thing, and it allows Meg a much fuller range of human emotion than American Crime‘s portrayal of Sylvia. And, perhaps most importantly, it has aims beyond respectable, accessible pathos; it may walk a line between art and exploitation, but it doesn’t back down from the first out of fear of becoming the second. That gives it an honesty and a seriousness of intent that the more mainstream, polished dramatization lacks.
An American Crime can be streamed on Amazon Prime and Vudu; Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is in print. (And was also made into a movie, albeit one I have no memory of seeing.)