What A Crime

By Kyle Buchanan

Originally published on Advocate.com May 14 2008 12:00 AM ET

Lord of the Flies meets ’60s suburbia in the
devastating An American Crime, directed and
cowritten by Tommy O’Haver (and worlds away from his
gay romantic comedy Billy’s Hollywood Screen
Kiss
). Airing May 10 on Showtime, it’s
based on the true-crime story of Indiana single mother
Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a troubled,
seething asthmatic struggling to support a rowdy
household of seven children. When a married couple of
itinerant carnival workers offer their two daughters to
Gertrude in exchange for a regular check, it seems like the
perfect arrangement: Gertrude can attempt to put
poverty behind her, and the girls can finally get to
know a stable home.

What follows,
though, is anything but perfect. Gertrude quickly tags the
eldest girl, Sylvia Likens (Juno's Ellen Page),
as a troublemaker, despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- the
girl’s relative innocence. When the first check from
Sylvia’s parents arrives late, Gertrude is all
too ready to administer a whipping to both Likens
children, and when the protective Sylvia offers to take the
beatings in her sister’s stead, she unwittingly
becomes the family scapegoat, exiled and eventually
tied up in the basement. Gertrude, her children, and
even the neighbors all have their turn with the battered
Sylvia in the months to come, physically punishing her for
grievances they themselves have committed or, in the
most chilling cases, for no reason at all except that
she is there and they are bloodthirsty.

It takes a
careful hand to keep this curious tragedy from spilling into
Mommie Dearest territory, and fortunately for
O’Haver, Keener gives a subtle, bravura performance.
It’s hard to imagine that a suburban mother
could preside over events this horrible, but Keener
keeps Gertrude real, even small -- and she’s all the
more terrifying for it. This is a woman too poor to go
to the doctor, a woman who self-medicates to keep both
her asthma and financial problems at bay, a woman
whose own problems (including an out-of-wedlock baby
fathered by a boyish lowlife) are far worse than the
crimes she levels at her young charge. Sprawled most
days on the living room couch, Gertrude can summon
energy only to punish Sylvia, an epic transference that
leaves the girl shattered and almost always culminates
in a terrible, knowing cough from the mother.

An American Crime is not easy going, and some
may wonder why this tale needs to be told at all. Setting
aside the story's eerie similarity to the recent case
of the Austrian father who tied his daughter up in the
basement for decades, the film draws a striking
parallel to the recent, treacherous downturn in American
foreign policy. Instead of fighting the real enemy, we
scapegoat; instead of following a moral code, we
torture; and instead of coming to our senses, we
create a poisonous atmosphere where everyone is complicit.
All one has to do is turn on the evening news to
resolve that crimes like this one can never be called
“American” again.