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An American Crime

An American Crime
Against a black background, a tightly cropped image showing only Catherine Keener's glaring eyes appears above the title
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
Scout Taylor-Compton
Music by Alan Ari Lazar
Cinematography Byron Shah
Edited by Melissa Kent
Distributed by Showtime
Release dates
  • 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.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Critical reception 4
  • Likens-based films 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


An American Crime alternates between the 1966 trial of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), and lengthy flashbacks to the events of the previous year described by the witnesses.

Sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) and her 15-year-old sister, Jenny (Hayley McFarland), have, in the past, travelled with their parents who work on the carnival circuit, where Sylvia always felt safe riding the merry-go-round. She and Jenny now live with their mother Betty Likens (Romy Rosemont), who recently separated from their father Lester Likens (Nick Searcy). Betty reconciles with him and they decide to go on tour together. They agree to leave their daughters in the care of a single mother named Gertrude Baniszewski, whose daughters the Likens girls met in church. In dire financial straits, Gertrude offers to care for their daughters for twenty dollars a week, and as their parents leave, the girls settle in with Baniszewski's six children: Paula (17), Stephanie (16), Johnny (13), Marie (12), Shirley (10), and infant son Kenny. Sylvia befriends Paula (Ari Graynor), who confesses to Sylvia that she is pregnant by her married boyfriend—Sylvia swears not to tell. Soon after the girls' arrival, Gertrude is upset that Lester's weekly payment is late, and punishes the girls by whipping them with a belt. The payment, along with a letter from the parents, arrives shortly thereafter, but Gertrude throws the letter in the trash and says nothing to the Likens girls.

While Paula and Sylvia are out with friends, Paula's boyfriend tells her that he can no longer see her, then hits Paula when she pleads for him to stay with her. To stop the boyfriend's attack, Sylvia tells him that Paula is pregnant. Paula, furious, vows that Sylvia will pay for revealing her secret. Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters), a neighbor of the Baniszewskis who is attracted to Sylvia, observes the scene. Paula tearfully tells Gertrude that Sylvia has been spreading lies about her. Gertrude forces Sylvia to apologize, and has her son Johnny (Tristan Jarred) hold Sylvia so that Paula can beat her. Rumors spread around their school that Paula is pregnant. Jenny finds the letter from her parents in the garbage, prompting Sylvia to phone them. The call is cut short when they see the Baniszewski children, who tell their mother about it. Although the girls had traded bottles in for money to make the call, Gertrude believes they stole the money from her and burns Sylvia's hand with a cigarette for "stealing".

At a church lunch, Andy (James Franco), the father of Gertrude's infant son, tells her that Sylvia has been spreading rumors that Paula is pregnant. When Sylvia returns home, Gertrude accuses her of flirting with a boy at the lunch and telling more lies about her daughter. Intending to make an example of her to her children, Gertrude forces Sylvia to insert a Coke bottle into her vagina in front of them. Gertrude then orders Johnny and Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard (Jeremy Sumpter), to throw her down the basement stairs, and lock her in. When Jenny asks how long Sylvia will be down there, Gertrude replies "until she learns her lesson", then tells everyone to maintain the fiction that Sylvia was sent to a juvenile detention facility.

Johnny begins to bring neighborhood children into the basement so they can join in the ongoing torture and humiliation of Sylvia begun by Gertrude and her children, assuring them that his mother said it was all right. The children visit regularly, with Gertrude's knowledge and approval, to beat Sylvia and burn her with cigarettes. Paula, feeling guilty, tells her mother she has been praying and thinks Sylvia has been punished enough, but Gertrude ignores her pleas. Their pastor visits the Baniszewski home, informing Gertrude that Paula told him she was pregnant and hinted to him about Sylvia's harsh treatment. Gertrude reassures him that Sylvia was sent away for being a bad influence, and as the pastor leaves, she orders everyone into the basement. Straddling Sylvia on the basement floor, Gertrude begins to carve the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!" on Sylvia's abdomen with a hot needle, but is unable to continue and orders Ricky to finish the branding amid Sylvia's agonized screams.

Late one night, Paula helps Sylvia escape by carrying her up the basement stairs and out of the house. Awakened by one of the Baniszewski girls, Gertrude tries to prevent the escape, but Paula stops her. Ricky finds Sylvia and drives her to her parents, who are horrified at their daughter's condition. Sylvia and her parents go immediately to the Baniszewski household to make sure that Jenny is safe. Sylvia walks into the house and sees her own lifeless body lying on the floor with Stephanie leaning over it screaming that she is not breathing. As she stands watching this, Sylvia closes her eyes and vanishes, revealing her escape and return to be only her vivid hallucination just before dying. While Gertrude continues to insist that Sylvia is faking, Ricky calls the police. As they arrive, Jenny approaches one of the officers, saying "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything."

On the witness stand, Jenny tells the prosecutor that Sylvia never did anything to Gertrude, Paula, or anyone else, and adds that Gertrude had threatened her with the same treatment her sister received if she did not keep quiet about it. After denying that she did anything wrong, and blaming the torture and death of Sylvia on her children and their friends, Gertrude is found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. As Sylvia's narration details the punishment of some of her abusers, Gertrude sits alone in her prison cell. In her imagination she sees a vision of Sylvia silently looking back at her. Gertrude tries to speak, but is unable to get the words out for she is too evil, and the image vanishes.

In a deserted carnival, Sylvia rides a merry-go-round; the one place she always felt safe.



Principal photography took place in 2006 (40 years after the court case of the crime). 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

The film received generally negative reviews, currently holding a 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 13 reviews.[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]

Likens-based films

Another film inspired by the Likens tragedy, The Girl Next Door (based on The Girl Next Door (novel) by Jack Ketchum) was also produced in 2007. Directed by Gregory Wilson, it stars Blanche Baker as the torturer and Blythe Auffarth as the tortured girl.[1] The film was released in December 2007 to mostly positive reviews.


  1. ^ a b c 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".  

External links

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