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What A Crime

What A Crime


Showtime's forceful drama based on a true crime is revealing -- for the victims and America itself.

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.

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Kyle Buchanan