An American Crime is a 2007 American crime-drama film starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener. Based on the true story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens by Indianapolis housewife Gertrude Baniszewski, it premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. 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. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe, an Emmy (both for Keener's performance) and a Writer's Guild Award.
An American Crime alternates between the 1966 trial of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), and lengthy flashbacks to the events of the previous year described by the witnesses. 16-year-old Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) and her 15-year-old sister, Jenny (Hayley McFarland), have, in the past, travelled with their parents who work on the carnival circuit, where Sylvia always felt safe riding the merry-go-round. She and Jenny now live with their mother Betty Likens (Romy Rosemont), who recently separated from their father Lester Likens (Nick Searcy). Betty reconciles with him and they decide to go on tour together. They agree to leave their daughters in the care of a single mother named Gertrude Baniszewski, whose daughters the Likens girls met in church. In dire financial straits, Gertrude offers to care for their daughters for twenty dollars a week, and as their parents leave, the girls settle in with Baniszewski's six children: Paula (17), Stephanie (16), Johnny (13), Marie (12), Shirley (10), and infant son Kenny. Sylvia befriends Paula (Ari Graynor), who confesses to Sylvia that she is pregnant by her married boyfriendSylvia swears not to tell. Soon after the girls' arrival, Gertrude is upset that Lester's weekly payment is late, and punishes the girls by whipping them with a belt. The payment, along with a letter from the parents, arrives shortly thereafter, but Gertrude throws the letter in the trash and says nothing to the Likens girls. While Paula and Sylvia are out with friends, Paula's boyfriend tells her that he can no longer see her, then hits Paula when she pleads for him to stay with her. To stop the boyfriend's attack, Sylvia tells him that Paula is pregnant. Paula, furious, vows that Sylvia will pay for revealing her secret. Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters), a neighbor of the Baniszewskis who is attracted to Sylvia, observes the scene. Paula tearfully tells Gertrude that Sylvia has been spreading lies about her. Gertrude forces Sylvia to apologize, and has her son Johnny (Tristan Jarred) hold Sylvia so that Paula can beat her. Rumors spread around their school that Paula is pregnant. Jenny finds the letter from her parents in the garbage, prompting Sylvia to phone them. The call is cut short when they see the Baniszewski children, who tell their mother about it. Although the girls had traded bottles in for money to make the call, Gertrude believes they stole the money from her and burns Sylvia's hand with a cigarette for "stealing". At a church lunch, Andy (James Franco), the father of Gertrude's infant son, tells her that Sylvia has been spreading rumors that Paula is pregnant. When Sylvia returns home, Gertrude accuses her of flirting with a boy at the lunch and telling more lies about her daughter. Intending to make an example of her to her children, Gertrude forces Sylvia to insert a Coke bottle into her vagina in front of them. Gertrude then orders Johnny and Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard (Jeremy Sumpter), to throw her down the basement stairs, and lock her in. When Jenny asks how long Sylvia will be down there, Gertrude replies "until she learns her lesson", then tells everyone to maintain the fiction that Sylvia was sent to a juvenile detention facility. Johnny begins to bring neighborhood children into the basement so they can join in the ongoing torture and humiliation of Sylvia begun by Gertrude and her children, assuring them that his mother said it was alright. The children visit regularly, with Gertrude's knowledge and approval, to beat Sylvia and burn her with cigarettes. Paula, feeling guilty, tells her mother she has been praying and thinks Sylvia has been punished enough, but Gertrude ignores her pleas. Their pastor visits the Baniszewski home, informing Gertrude that Paula told him she was pregnant and hinted to him about Sylvia's harsh treatment. Gertrude reassures him that Sylvia was sent away for being a bad influence, and as the pastor leaves, she orders everyone into the basement. Straddling Sylvia on the basement floor, Gertrude begins to carve the words "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!" on Sylvia's abdomen with a hot needle, but is unable to continue and orders Ricky to finish the branding amid Sylvia's agonized screams. Late one night, Paula helps Sylvia escape by carrying her up the basement stairs and out of the house. Awakened by one of the Baniszewski girls, Gertrude tries to prevent the escape, but Paula stops her. Ricky finds Sylvia and drives her to her parents, who are horrified at their daughter's condition. Sylvia and her parents go immediately to the Baniszewski household to make sure that Jenny is safe. Sylvia walks into the house and sees her own lifeless body lying on the floor with Stephanie leaning over it screaming that she is not breathing. As she stands watching this, Sylvia closes her eyes and vanishes, revealing her escape and return to be only her vivid hallucination just before dying. While Gertrude continues to insist that Sylvia is faking, Ricky calls the police. As they arrive, Jenny approaches one of the officers, saying "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything". On the witness stand, Jenny tells the prosecutor that Sylvia never did anything to Gertrude, Paula, or anyone else, and adds that Gertrude had threatened her with the same treatment her sister received if she did not keep quiet about it. After denying that she did anything wrong, and blaming the torture and death of Sylvia on her children and their friends, Gertrude is found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. As Sylvia's narration details the punishment of some of her abusers, Gertrude sits alone in her prison cell. In her imagination she sees a vision of Sylvia silently looking back at her. Gertrude tries to speak, but is unable to get the words out, and the image vanishes. In a deserted carnival, Sylvia rides a merry-go-round; the one place she always felt safe.