Movie Synopsis of "An American Crime"

by Jesse Sears

The film "An American Crime" is a 2007 crime drama starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener based on a true story surrounding the case of Gertrude Baniszewski versus the State of Indiana. American housewife Baniszewski (Keener) was convicted of the crime of keeping the teenage Sylvia Likens (Page) prisoner locked in a basement, subjecting her to all manner of abuses and finally of the young girl's murder.


Silvia Likens and her younger sister Jennie are cared for by two parents struggling to make ends meet in tough economic times. When the Likens have an opportunity to earn income traveling with a carnival, they choose to leave their young daughters in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, already mother to several children of her own. The two girls befriend Gertrude's children and seem to be adjusting well at first, even as the viewer is given initial glimpses of Gertrude's loss of control. Gertrude is overwhelmed financially, dating an abusive boyfriend and addicted to prescription medication. Taking on the Likens girls is portrayed as a burden from the start, though the $20 per week she is receiving from the girls' parents is motivation enough.

Conflict with Sylvia

Sylvia befriends Gertrude's daughter Paula, who confides that she has become pregnant by a married man in the community. When Sylvia sees the man yelling at and pushing Paula in public, she lets news of the pregnancy slip. Paula is mortified, even more so when rumors spread throughout the whole town. It is at this point that Gertrude's behavior toward Sylvia grows more and more harsh. What begins with verbal abuse turns to physical "punishment;" everything Sylvia does is seen as more fuel for the fire, and the viewer sees Gertrude's gradual loss of control of her own life being taken out on Sylvia. The Baniszewski children are fiercely obedient to their mother due to a mixture of terror and us-versus-the-world family unity. Jennie Likens sees Paula and Gertrude physically attack her sister, but feels powerless to do anything. The Likens parents continue to send $20 per week and extend their carnival tour, oblivious to what their daughter is going through at the Baniszewski home.


Gertrude's abuse of Sylvia continues to worsen -- physically, verbally and sexually -- until finally Sylvia is chained up in the basement. The Baniszewski children, and even other kids from the neighborhood, now participate in the abuses as the helpless Sylvia is treated like an object on which they all take out their anger. Those in the community who know the young girl is being held captive keep their mouths shut out of a mixture of fear of Gertrude and a hideous crowd mentality. In the film's darkest moment, Sylvia's one-time friend Ricky Hobbs (Evan Peters) is goaded on by Gertrude to carve "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" into the screaming Sylvia's stomach with a hot needle.


Near the end of the film, the viewer is shown a scene in which Ricky appears to come to his senses and help Sylvia escape from her plight. He unchains her, carries her from the basement and drives her to the carnival where she is tearfully reunited with her father. After Sylvia tells him what has happened, the pair return to the house to retrieve Jennie. Sylvia enters alone and sees her own body lying on the ground. The Baniszewski children try to tell their mother Sylvia isn't faking, but Gertrude is lost in her own terrible mind at this point. It is in this way that the viewer is shown that Sylvia never really made her escape at all, but instead was sadly killed as a direct result of the abuses.


Gertrude Baniszewski is convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison for life. Several others are convicted for their roles in the affair, including Ricky and some of Gertrude's children. The court scenes in the film use actual transcriptions from the real-life court case.


About the Author

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