An American Crime

An American Crime is a 2007 American crime horror film directed by Tommy O'Haver and starring Ellen 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]

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 Ellen 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
StarringEllen 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

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 (Ellen Page) and her disabled 15-year-old sister, Jenny (Hayley McFarland) enjoy themselves at a carnival. Their parents, Lester (Nick Searcy) and Betty (Romy Rosemont), who work in the carnival circuit, reconcile their previously estranged relationship and agree to go on a tour together. To cope with these changes, they decide to leave the Likens sisters in the care of an impoverished single mother named Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), since they have befriended her children at church.

Gertrude agrees to this since the parents have promised to pay her $20 per week to take care of the Likens sisters. Their stay is initially pleasant, until Lester's weekly payment fails to arrive. Infuriated, Gertrude whips the sisters with a belt in the basement. The payment, along with a letter from the parents, nevertheless arrives but Gertrude intentionally discards the letter and says nothing to the Likens girls. Her daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), is later upset when Sylvia informs Paula’s abusive boyfriend about her secret pregnancy. Gertrude forces Sylvia to apologize for "spreading lies" and has her son Johnny (Tristan Jarred) restrain Sylvia in order that Paula can slap her in the face and punch and restrain her.

The rumors surrounding Paula's pregnancy soon circulate around their school. Meanwhile, Jenny discovers the letter from their parents in the trash, prompting Sylvia to call them. The Baniszewski children notice her calling her parents and inform their mother. Gertrude believes that they stole the money from her to make the call (in reality, they had traded empty Coke bottles in for money) and burns Sylvia's hand with a cigarette. The abuse escalates as Gertrude accuses Sylvia of flirting with Andy, the father of Gertrude's infant son, and starting more rumors. Gertrude then forces Sylvia to insert an empty glass Coke bottle inside her vagina in front of her children before ordering Johnny and Stephanie's (Scout Taylor-Compton) boyfriend, Coy Hubbard (Jeremy Sumpter), to drag her across the floor and push her down the stairs into the basement as Jenny begins to weep.

Gertrude assures a fearful Jenny that Sylvia will remain in the basement "until she learns her lesson". To cover up the situation, she instructs her children to maintain the fiction that Sylvia was sent to juvenile detention for her bad influence. With Gertrude's knowledge and approval, Johnny regularly invites the neighborhood children to the basement to beat and burn Sylvia for fun. Paula soon feels guilty and tells her mother that she believes that Sylvia has been punished enough. Gertrude ignores her, but the local Reverend (Michael O'Keefe) arrives, hinting that Paula has confessed to him about her pregnancy and Sylvia's ongoing abuse. Gertrude tells him that Sylvia was sent to juvenile detention. Once the Reverend leaves, Gertrude orders everyone into the basement.

In the basement, Gertrude restrains Sylvia on the floor and begins branding the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on her stomach with a heated needle. When Gertrude is unable to finish, she gives the needle to her teenage neighbor Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters) and orders him to continue the branding. That night, Paula quietly helps Sylvia escape from the basement. Gertrude is awakened by one of her daughters and tries to prevent Sylvia's escape, but Paula stops her. Ricky finds her and drives her to her parents, who are horrified by Sylvia's condition when she shows them her branding as proof. Sylvia asks them to drive her back to the Baniszewski household to make sure Jenny is okay which they do. As soon as she enters the house, she oversees a distraught Stephanie leaning over Sylvia's dead body trying to revive her with Ricky helping—to no avail. The escape is proved to be a hallucination. Gertrude believes that Sylvia is faking it until Stephanie sadly announces that Sylvia is dead.

When the police arrive, one of the officers ask Ricky what happened. Jenny approaches them and tells the officer to take her so she can explain everything. At a murder trial, Jenny reveals to the prosecutor that Sylvia did not do anything to hurt Gertrude or anyone else and that Gertrude threatened her with the same treatment if she told anyone the truth. Gertrude denies any wrongdoing and blames her children and their friends for Sylvia's death. Despite this, she is declared guilty of first-degree murder and is sentenced to life in prison. Sylvia's voiceover also narrates the fates of her other murderers. In her prison cell, Gertrude sees Sylvia's ghost but before she attempts to apologize, the ghost disappears. It is also revealed that Gertrude was released on parole in 1985 but died less than five years later.



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

Critical receptionEdit

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 alsoEdit

  • 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 linksEdit