I don't know why I thought it would be a good idea to watch this. Good lord.
Ok,first off, let's start with what this movie is about. In the 1960s, a young woman and her younger sister go to live with their aunt. Their aunt has too many kids and not enough money and she's suffering because of this,so adding two more kids kind of send her off the edge. All the rage she has inside, rage she'd never let herself pour out on her own kids, suddenly comes out on her niece Sylvia (the eldest of the two girls). The aunt starts beating the girl, getting more and more violent, until one day she flies into a rage and imprisons the girl in the basement. Soon, her children and the neighborhood children join in beating Sylvia, calling it "punishment." This continues for months.
Horrible story, right? Who would think up something like this? Well, I'm sad to say, but this movie is based on a true story. Don't believe me? Read the info here and here. It's a terrible thing, a horrendous thing, and it's not a lot of fun to watch it happen onscreen in this movie. There was a novel loosely based on this case, called "The Girl Next Door," written by Jack Ketchum, and it's one of the hardest books I've ever read. The movie based on that book, also called "The Girl Next Door," was so disturbing that when the Family Video in my town got it in, people protested until it was taken off the shelves. That pissed me off royally, because I think it's an important film and I think people need to see it. "An American Crime" is more closely based on the Sylvia Likens case,and it's easier to watch because it ends with courtroom scenes and testimony and a voice over telling you what happened to each character, which serves to take you out of the story a bit and soften the blow of what you just saw, but it's still a difficult movie to watch.
Ellen Page stars as Sylvia, and Catherine Keener as the aunt, Gertrude Baniszewski. Both Page and Keener give great performances. Everyone in this movie gives a great performance, even the bit players. The torture scenes are painful to watch. But the most terrible thing about this movie is watching the neighborhood kids as they slowly succumb to the idea that it's ok to torture and beat Sylvia. The way that woman gets inside their minds is terrifying to watch. I've seen it happen before, and it's not something I like to relive (again, remind me why I thought it would be a good idea to watch this movie?) At the end of the book "The Girl Next Door," the narrator,one of the neighborhood kids who tortured the girl (now as an adult) says that he wonders how the other kids are doing,now that they're all grown up...and that he wonders the same thing about himself. There's something about being a kid, at the mercy of adults most of the time, that makes you believe the things they tell you, even when you know those things are wrong.
The kids who tortured Sylvia knew that what they did was wrong,but part of being in a fucked up situation is that sometimes you become more fucked up yourself just so you can adapt to it and eventually survive. Seeing them transform like that is haunting, and it makes you wonder about how they fared as adults, and it makes you worry for your neighbor's kids, because if something like this could happen in suburban USA with neighbors all around, what could be going on in your own neighborhood? At least it makes me wonder these things. And it almost makes me wish I hadn't watched this movie, which is one of the best recommendations I can give for a movie. It's that disturbing. It's that important.