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 Elliot 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 byTommy O'Haver
Produced byChristine Vachon
Jocelyn Hayes
Henry Winterstern
Kevin Turen
Hans C. Ritter
Written byTommy O'Haver
Irene Turner
StarringElliot Page
Catherine Keener
Hayley McFarland
Ari Graynor
James Franco
Music byAlan Ari Lazar
CinematographyByron Shah
Edited byMelissa Kent
Distributed byShowtime
Release date
  • January 19, 2007 (2007-01-19) (Sundance Film Festival)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States

An American Crime is a 2007 American crime horror film directed by Tommy O'Haver and starring Elliot Page and Catherine Keener. The film is based on the true story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Indianapolis single mother 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 (Elliot Page) and her disabled 15-year-old sister, Jenny (Hayley McFarland), are left in the care of an impoverished woman named Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a church acquaintance and mother to Paula (Ari Graynor), Johnny (Tristan Jarred), Stephanie (Scout Taylor-Compton), and several younger children. Their parents, Lester (Nick Searcy) and Betty (Romy Rosemont), work in the carnival circuit and leave on a tour. Gertrude agrees for the fee of $20 per week.

Lester's payment fails to arrive. Infuriated, Gertrude whips the Likens sisters with a belt. When the payment arrives with a letter from the parents, Gertrude discards the letter without telling the sisters. After Sylvia tells Paula’s boyfriend about Paula's pregnancy, Gertrude forces Sylvia to apologize for "spreading lies" and has Johnny help Paula beat Sylvia. Jenny discovers the letter from their parents in the trash. Sylvia calls them, but is seen by the Baniszewski children. Gertrude falsely accuses them of stealing money from her for the call and burns Sylvia with a cigarette. She also accuses Sylvia of flirting with Andy, father of one of Gertrude's sons, abuses Sylvia sexually, and orders Johnny and Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard (Jeremy Sumpter), to push her down the basement stairs. As Jenny weeps, Gertrude says Sylvia will remain in the basement "until she learns her lesson".

Gertrude instructs her children to lie that Sylvia was sent to juvenile detention. With Gertrude's knowledge and approval, Johnny regularly invites the neighborhood children to the basement to abuse Sylvia. Paula soon feels guilty and tells her mother Sylvia has been punished enough. Gertrude ignores her. The Reverend (Michael O'Keefe) arrives, hinting that Paula has confessed about her pregnancy and Sylvia's treatment. Gertrude tells him Sylvia was sent away. Once the Reverend leaves, Gertrude orders everyone into the basement, where she restrains Sylvia and begins branding the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on her stomach with a heated needle. Gertrude passes the needle to her teen neighbor Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters) to finish the branding.

That night, Paula helps Sylvia escape from the basement. Gertrude is awakened by another daughter and tries to catch Sylvia, but is stopped by Paula. Ricky drives Sylvia to her parents'. They are horrified by Sylvia's condition and drives her back to the Baniszewski house at her request to make sure Jenny is okay. When Sylvia enters, she sees a distraught Stephanie trying to revive Sylvia with Ricky's help -- the escape was a hallucination. Gertrude at first does not believe Sylvia is dead.

The police arrive. Jenny tells them to take her so she can explain. At the murder trial, Jenny says Gertrude threatened her with the same treatment if she told anyone. Gertrude denies all wrongdoing and blames her children and their friends for Sylvia's death. She is sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. Sylvia's voice narrates the fates of her other murderers. In her prison cell, Gertrude briefly sees Sylvia's ghost.



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] Elliot Page was the only choice to play Sylvia Likens.

Critical reception[edit]

Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 38% of 13 critic ratings are positive for the film.[3] Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times called it "one 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" Archived April 2, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. BuzzSugar. May 10, 2008.
  3. ^ "An American Crime". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
  4. ^ Bellafonte, Ginia (May 10, 2008). "Home-Grown, Everyday Sadism". The New York Times. Retrieved September 9, 2011.

External links[edit]