Like many made for TV movies that are “based on a true story”, An American Crime (as tough and grim as it is to watch) has actually tempered the severity of the original crime. In 1965, Gertrude Baniszewski was a single mother of seven who took in two girls whose parents had a tour with the circus. For a number of months, she systematically tortured one of the girls, Sylvia Likens in her basement.
It was a front page story of unspeakable and irrational evil. The heinous crime is even more despicable because her children joined in as well as neighborhood kids. It's one of those horrifying stories that begs the question, how could this happen? And calls to mind the recent theory of “group think“. It's easy to understand the reasons the makers had to remind the world of this nearly forgotten tragedy.
What could have easily been an ineffective and exploitive movie of the week is, in the hands of director Tommy O'Haver, severe and gut-wrenching. The performances, especially by Catherine Keener and Ellen Page also elevates the material. Keener in particular has the difficult job of remaining somehow human through the sometimes unbearable violence. And Ari Graynor as her malicious and confused teenage daughter is also very good here.
It's not a blatantly violent movie, much of the torture is off camera, implied or shown in bits and close ups on Page's grieving eyes, but that really doesn't make it any less disturbing. In fact, the hint of violence leaves more to the imagination and the result is even more horrifying.