An American Crime is a 2007 crime-drama film 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 to controversy amongst the critics, most of whom, nonetheless, lauded the daring performances of Catherine Keener (who earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal) and, especially, Ellen Page. Because of internal problems with the film's original distributor, First Look, the film was headed to the straight-to-DVD market, but Showtime stepped in and officially premiered the film on May 10, 2008. The film received positive reviews, with the New York Times calling it 'one of the best movies to appear on television in years.'
An American Crime is split into reflections of contemporary and past settings. The contemporary setting is the trial of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) while the past is the reflection of those at the trial to what happened. Lester Likens (Nick Searcy) first explains how he and his wife Betty (Romy Rosemont) had separated, but got back together to tour with the carnival. They leave their daughters at church, alone, and tell them to take the church bus home. On the bus, they meet the Baniszewski children, who invite Sylvia and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) Likens over to their house.
Lester finds his children, and after a conversation, Baniszewski offers to let the girls stay with her for $20 per week. The film goes on to show the Likens girls with the Baniszewski girls, and making friends at school. We are introduced to Paula Baniszewski (Ari Graynor) and her boyfriend (Brian Geraghty), who is married. Eventually, Paula confesses to Sylvia that she is pregnant. Sylvia swears she won't tell anyone.
One day after school, Gertrude Baniszewski tells the eight children to go upstairs, "except for you two," indicating Jenny and Sylvia. Their upkeep payment is late and Gertrude says she just took care of the girls for two weeks for nothing. She punishes the girls by whipping them with a belt. Jenny receives one swat with the belt and begins to cry, so Sylvia takes Jenny's other whips. Soon thereafter, Gertrude receives the payment and a letter from the Likens, which is directed to Jenny and Sylvia. We learn that Gertrude throws the letter in the trash.
Sylvia is then shown riding in the back of a pickup truck with friends, who are drinking and smoking. Paula is seen talking to her boyfriend, who tells her his wife is back and they can no longer see each other. He is raping Paula when Sylvia finds them. Sylvia tells him that Paula is pregnant, which angers him. Paula tells Sylvia that she will pay for that. Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters), who likes Sylvia, observes the scene.
Paula comes home crying, She tells her mother that Sylvia was spreading horrible lies about her - telling everyone that Paula was a slut. Back at home, Gertrude forces Sylvia to apologize to Paula for spreading lies, and eventually has Johnny (Tristan Jarred) hold Sylvia while Paula beats on her, during which Sylvia hurts Paula's wrist.
At school, Sylvia is introduced to Eric (Scott Eastwood) , who seems to like her. She leaves, though, when she sees Stephanie Baniszewski (Scout Taylor-Compton). Stephanie asks what Gertrude was so upset about, and Sylvia says, "You heard. I called Paula a slut," to which Stephanie replies, "That's not true, is it?" Stephanie says there are rumors going around. We see Paula in the dressing room at school and people talking behind her back, saying she is pregnant.
Jenny finds the letter from her parents in the garbage, prompting Sylvia and her to phone their parents. The call is cut short when they see the Baniszewski children coming. The Baniszewski children tell Gertrude about the phone call. Gertrude believes they stole money from her to make the long distance call, although they really had traded bottles in for money. As a punishment for stealing, Gertrude burns Sylvia with a cigarette.
At a church lunch, Eric sees Sylvia again and invites her to join him and his friends. She does, but sees Ricky. She asks Ricky if he had heard her say anything about Paula being pregnant, because she is being blamed for the rumors. Ricky denies her claims. At the lunch, Gertrude's youngest child's (baby) father, Andy (James Franco), says Sylvia has been spreading rumours that Paula was pregnant. Andy advises Sylvia not to come between Gertrude and her kids.
Eric and Sylvia then leave to cruise the circle. When she comes home, a confrontation occurs between Sylvia and Gertrude. Gertrude accuses Sylvia of telling more lies about her daughter, then forces Sylvia to put a Coke bottle up her vagina in front of the family (which is unseen). Stephanie arrives home to see Sylvia in excruciating pain. Gertrude orders Sylvia to go the basement because she does not want her in the same room as her children. When Sylvia refuses, Stephanie's boyfriend (Jeremy Sumpter) and Johnny throw her down the stairs.
Jenny is in the basement, caring for Sylvia when Gertrude calls for a family meeting. She tells Jenny that her parents picked up the Florida leg of the tour and would not be coming until the end of November. Jenny asks how long Sylvia will be in the basement, to which Gertrude replies "until she learns her lesson." Paula begins to feel sorry for Sylvia, but Gertrude assures her she needs to be punished. Gertrude makes everyone swear that Sylvia was sent to juvenile hall.
The film then shows Johnny bringing people well older than himself into the house so they can beat and torture Sylvia with cigarettes. The children spray Sylvia with water and tie her to a post.
Paula comes home one day and receives praise for being a good daughter through these troubling times. Paula tells her mother she has been praying and thinks Sylvia has learned her lesson. Gertrude says there are things in life that we have to do, whether we like it or not. Paula says she wants no part of it.
Gertrude takes a cloth and water down to wash Sylvia. She assures her that she will not hurt her. She tells Sylvia that sometimes her medicine causes her not to know what she is doing. Gertrude tells Sylvia how she had her children and how her first husband left her. Gertrude says she cares for her children so much and needs to protect them.
The church pastor (Michael O'Keefe) tells Gertrude that Paula has confessed to being pregnant. Gertrude still denies it and says it was a rumor spread by Sylvia, calling her a bad influence. The pastor asks to talk to Sylvia because Paula had told him there had been some problems. When the pastor leaves, Paula comes down the stairs but says nothing to her mother.
After this, Gertrude wants everybody in the basement. She begins to brand "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on Sylvia's stomach with a hot needle, but gets Ricky to finish.
Paula comes down to the basement one night to help Sylvia escape. One of the sisters awakens Gertrude, who tries to prevent the escape. Paula stops Gertrude, and Ricky drives Sylvia to Portage to see her parents, but they return her to Gertrude so Sylvia can make sure Jenny is safe. Sylvia walks in to see Stephanie shouting that someone is not breathing. Sylvia looks and sees herself lying on the floor. The standing Sylvia vanishes, making it appear as if Sylvia was dreaming prior to her death.
As Stephanie is screaming that she is not breathing, Gertrude continues to mutter that she is faking it. When Ricky calls the police and they arrive, Jenny says, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." Jenny is shown on stand, saying that Sylvia never did anything to Paula or Gertrude, but Gertrude had threatened her to keep quiet or she would get the same treatment. Gertrude was the last to take the stand.
Gertrude is found guilty of first degree murder but only after denying that she did anything; she turned it on her kids and said that she wasn't able to watch them at all times. It then shows Gertrude in prison and she looks to her left and Sylvia appears - then she vanishes.
Sylvia narrates the end, relating the punishments the others received. The film ends with Sylvia riding the merry-go-round, the one place she always felt safe. Sylvia then closes the movie with the words, "For every situation, God has a plan. I guess I'm still trying to figure what that plan was."