Not even the considerable talents of lead thesps Catherine Keener and Ellen Page can alleviate the artistic nullity that is “An American Crime.” Director and co-scripter Tommy O’Haver brings no depth or insight to his account of a horrific true-life 1965 murder case that involved a girl’s systematic torture by a Midwestern substitute mom who locked the teen in a basement. Unsavory subject matter will assure this First Look release a degree of notoriety, but will also guarantee that, given the lack of any transcendent artistic qualities, most people will put this on their to-avoid list.
Having demonstrated at best a mild talent for comedy in his earlier films, beginning with the Sundance entry “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” and followed by “Get Over It” and “Ella Enchanted,” O’Haver seems clueless as to how to make something palatable and illuminating of the twisted psychology and pathological behavior at the heart of this tragic tale.
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The very title has an inflated portentousness about it that seems misguided; there’s nothing uniquely American about the events that come to pass in the working-class home of the desperate, medication-addled Gertrude Baniszewski, nor any conclusions to be drawn related to its setting. This is a story that, in variations, could have and, unfortunately, probably has played out anywhere at any time.
Evidently the very ordinariness of the Indianapolis-area location and the central figures is meant to make the episode more shocking, but so many tales of Middle American weirdness have made it to the screen already that only the “Lord of the Flies” aspect of other children’s complicity in Gertrude’s malevolence registers with any impact.
Left by their itinerant carny parents in the care of divorced mom Gertrude (Keener) for 20 bucks a week, 16-year-old Sylvia Likens (Page) and her polio-afflicted younger sis Jennie (Hayley McFarland) try to adapt, and mix with Gertrude’s seven kids. Running the household like a low-rent boot camp, Gertrude, who’s pushing 40, can’t bury her floozy instincts, carrying on with a much-younger b.f. (James Franco) and indulging in day-long cocktails of booze and medicine.
With little detailing other than period pop songs and TV clips of the Vietnam War, the pic presents a familiar picture of nominal moral rectitude centered around church and school that’s no match for the teens’ hormonal instincts. For all the tawdriness of her world, Sylvia is remarkably well-behaved and honest, which can hardly be said of Gertrude’s trampy oldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), who admits to Sylvia she’s pregnant by her married b.f. but can’t bring herself to tell her mother.
In the long run, Gertrude takes out all her frustration and logical scorn for Paula on good girl Sylvia, wrongly accusing her of being a slut and of lying constantly. Even though it unfortunately played out in real life this way, onscreen it would seem Sylvia hasplenty of opportunity to appeal for help, even after her abuse by Gertrude begins in earnest.
Once Sylvia ends up in the basement, Gertrude goads the kids — her own and others — into taking the girl’s “punishment” into their own hands. Although not too graphic, the action is hardly edifying. Interlaced courtroom scenes include testimony from various kids, much of which bears no direct connection to what is concurrently dramatized, and the eventual revelation of what happened to the perpetrators.
Even when it comes to Keener and Page, the entire enterprise has a rote, under-rehearsed feel that never convinces. Most of the film consists of closeups cut together as if by machine, denying the film any sense of rhythm, shape or life. Keener perhaps wisely underplays Gertrude’s sick villainy, but a few moments of steely, insidious power should have been attempted to illustrate the terror that kept the kids in her grasp. For her part, Page was much more interesting as a crafty instigator in “Hard Candy” than she is here as a passive victim.
Without offering any point of view on such material or a deeply felt emotional or spiritual catharsis, it’s difficult to see the point of a project such as “An American Crime.” Tech aspects are adequate.