Length: 92 minutes
Director: Tommy O’Haver (Ella Enchanted; Get Over It)
Writer: Tommy O’Haver (Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss; The Pitch) and Irene Turner
Starring: Ellen Page, Catherine Keener, James Franco, Bradley Whitford, Scout Taylor-Compton, Ari Graynor, Nick Searcy, Hayley McFarland, Evan Oeters
“An American Crime” is based on the true story of the murder of a teenage girl named Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page). Sylvia and her sister Jennie (Hayley MacFarland) were left by their carnie parents (Nick Searcy, Romy Rosemont) under the care of a neighbor they barely knew named Gertrude Baniszweksi (Catherine Keener). Baniszweksi reasons with the Likens- she all ready has seven children, what’s two more going to hurt? Plus, she’ll be sent twenty dollars a week for her services (this takes place in 1965 in an Indianapolis suburb). Baniszweksi takes an instant disliking to the pretty and intelligent Sylvia and after some misunderstandings involving Baniszweksi’s own teenager daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), in which Sylvia only had good intentions- Gertrude locks Sylvia in the basement without food or water. She also lets her own children burn her with cigarettes and beat her. She allows a local boy (Evan Oeters) who Sylvia politely declined romantic advances from to “brand” her. Sylvia’s sister is scared sick and is afraid to do anything. When she talks to her parents, she is too frightened to tell them everything. They promise they will be back soon, but the days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months- and by then it is too late. It’s not hard to tell that “An American Crime” is not the most cheerful movie you will ever watch. The subject matter is highly disturbing, particularly since it is based on true events (and according to my girlfriend, who read a book on it, the movie follows the events very faithfully). The problem is that the movie is presented in a normal Lifetime movie manner. Director Tommy O’Haver, who’s prior screen credits include teeny bopper flicks “Ella Enchanted” and “Get Over It”, isn’t capable enough to bring the intensity that the film requires. He makes it unsettling, sure, but he just presents it. He doesn’t go deep into the story or the characters. Baniszweksi is a fascinating character- she denies ever torturing Sylvia in court and didn’t admit it until she was on her death bed- yet, O’Haver presents her strictly as a horror movie villain and Keener, one of the best actresses in the business, tries her best, but even she seems to know that her director isn’t confident in what he wants to present. Page turns in a good performance as usual, but the majority of her screen time is spent lying on the basement floor crying and pleading for help. There is a way to make a film like this watchable, compelling, and a true study of how a human mind can cross over into the brink of insanity. O’Haver had the perfect cast and the perfect story, he just should have let someone else tell it to us.
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