An American Crime

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Limited release

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With the sudden new wave of what has been dubbed “torture porn” or horror films that graphically depict people being tortured by other people still seemingly in fashion, it’ll be interesting to see just what lessons the American movie-going public take away from An American Tale.

An American Crime recounts the real events that happened to two teenage girls left in the care of a deranged woman and her seven children.

In 1965 Indianapolis, Sylvia and Jennie Fae Likens are left with Gertrude Baniszewski, who agrees to take care of the girls for $20 a week while their carnival parents set out to work the circuit for a few weeks. Gertrude, played by Catherine Keener, reluctantly agrees as times are tough and the money is too attractive to turn down.

But quickly she suspects the eldest daughter, Sylvia, is untrustworthy and a bad influence on her own children while the younger daughter, Jennie, suffers from polio and requires far more care than Gertrude’s fragile state can provide. Soon she banishes both to the basement and begins to torture them under the guise of discipline as well as to set an example for her own children.

What made this case so riveting was that the girls were tortured not just by the deranged woman, but later by her children as well as their friends who knew the victims briefly through school. The neighbors were also complicit in that it was widely known that very disturbing sounds were coming from the house and that the girls had suddenly vanished.

The movie is based on the court transcripts of the 1966 trial and showcases the acting talent of Catherine Keener, whose most notable recent work was as Nelle Harper Lee in Capote, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Early reviews from Sundance this January praise her performance, while the reactions to the movie itself were mixed. Some have hailed it as complex study of a deranged mind and the exploration of the motives into a mob mentality, whereas others characterize it ponderous and unentertaining.

An American Crime also features performances by Ellen Page from X-Men: The Last Stand as Sylvia and Bradley Whitford from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

It is directed by Tommy O’Haver whose previous works have tended to be lighter fare such as Get Over It and Ella Enchanted.

With the recent glut of films that seem to indulge the baser side of human curiosity, with faceless characters being tortured by gleefully maniacal madmen, one wonders how well a movie is received that treats the same subject matter realistically? (D. James Ruccio/BOP)

Vital statistics for An American Crime
Main Cast Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, James Franco
Supporting Cast Bradley Whitford, Hayley McFarland, Ari Graynor, Evan Peters, Hannah Leigh Dworkin, Scout Taylor-Compton, Carlie Westerman, Nick Searcy, Tristan Jarred, Channing Nichols, Romy Rosemont, Michael Welch
Director Tommy O'Haver
Screenwriter Tommy O'Haver
Distributor First Look Studios
Rating R
Talent in red has entry in The Big Picture



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Saturday, February 27, 2021
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