An American Crime

The question I have for the makers of “An American Crime” is: why? What purpose does your film serve? For I have watched it, and I have contemplated it, and I can come up with no good reason for it to exist. It dredges up awful memories and conjures horrific images, and to what end? To inform us that such unpleasantness sometimes occurs in real life? Fine — but shouldn’t part of your agenda also be to show us WHY? Merely relating an awful story and saying, “This really happened” isn’t much of a raison d’etre. That’s what we have newspapers for.

The American crime of the title refers to an incident in 1965 in which a 16-year-old Indianapolis girl was confined, tortured, starved, and maliciously abused by the woman in whose care her parents had left her, as well as by the woman’s own children and by kids in the neighborhood. The woman went on trial, and the case sent shudders across America. It was a creepy story, especially coming from wholesome, Midwestern Indiana. California, sure. They’ll lock up and torture kids out there. But Indiana?!

Ellen Page, the young firecracker of an actress who played the vengeful would-be victim in “Hard Candy,” plays the victim here. She is Sylvia Likens, a smart, pretty, well-behaved girl with a younger sister, Jennie (Hayley McFarland). The girls’ parents travel with a booth on the county fair circuit and must often leave the girls with friends or relatives for weeks at a time. Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) is neither friend nor relative, but she agrees to take the girls for $20 a week, figuring with six kids of her own, another two won’t matter much.

Gertie is divorced and in poor health, smokes constantly and drinks regularly, and can claim a much younger local man (James Franco) as the father of her latest baby. She needs the $20 a week badly; the rest of her income is from doing people’s ironing and from the part-time job her oldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), holds.

Paula is secretly dating a young married man, Bradley (Brian Geraghty), and she confides in Sylvia — her new foster sister and gal-pal — that she’s pregnant. When rumors of this start to circulate, Gertie refuses to believe it, taking out her anger and jealousy on Sylvia instead. Sylvia is young and hopeful, brimming with potential. She is everything Gertie no longer is, and she represents what Gertie’s own children could have been, if they hadn’t had such a screw-up for a mother.

The abuse begins somewhat traditionally (belt whippings), becomes cruel (cigarette burns), and then advances into territory that is downright ghastly (I will provide no examples). Bizarrely, the other children take part in it, and soon their friends from school and church start coming over to beat on the girl in the basement, too. Sylvia’s sister, Jennie, is left untouched, too terrified to try to get help.

Director Tommy O’Haver, whose last film, “Ella Enchanted,” also centered on a young girl being forced to do things against her will, jumps back and forth between the 1966 trial and the 1965 events in question. The courtroom scenes (with a prosecutor played by Bradley Whitford) take all their dialogue from the actual trial transcripts, and that gives them a certain realistic thrill. We know this is what these people actually said, with the cadences and idiosyncrasies of real-life courtroom testimony intact.

The other scenes, on the other hand, written by O’Haver and Irene Turner, are obligated to take certain liberties, and to fictionalize things that weren’t on the public record. This is done believably enough, I guess, in that I can take the movie’s word for it that this is more or less what happened. What’s missing is the insight.

Why would people behave this way? Gertie gets her one scene to explain her twisted psyche (marvelously acted by Keener, a great actress when it comes to dark material, though it’s heretofore usually been comedy), and while one scene isn’t enough, it’s a start. But what about everyone else? What about the neighbor kids, many of whom, in scenes where they aren’t terrorizing Sylvia, seem perfectly normal? When they’re asked in court why they did it, each one says, “I don’t know, sir.” No doubt that’s really what they said. They probably couldn’t explain it. So shouldn’t that be the movie’s job, to explain, or at least shed some light on, what causes society to break down this way? And if the movie’s answer is, “We don’t know; that’s just how it is,” that simply begs the question, “Then why did you make the movie?”

I suspect O’Haver’s intention with the film was, indeed, to find meaning in the crime and to look for its causes; the press materials indicate as much. That’s good, because on face value alone, the film comes dangerously close to sensationalism, seeming to re-create the horror just for perversity’s sake. I’m glad O’Haver had nobler goals than that; I just wish he’d succeeded at accomplishing them.

C (1 hr., 32 min.; R, some profanity, some sexual dialogue, some disturbing violence, pervasive disturbing themes.)