and Catherine Keener star in this dramatization of the real-life story of Sylvia Likens and Gertrude Baniszewski. Sylvia and her sister are left for an extended stay at the home of Gertrude and her six children. Times are tough and the increasingly unstable Baniszewski snaps and begins taking out her anger on Sylvia, repeatedly abusing and eventually torturing her. Things get worse when her kids and others from the neighborhood join in.
This film provides examples of:
- Adult Fear: The worst fear of every parent who left their child in the care of a friend's family.
- Affectionate Nickname: Sylvia's father calls her "Cookie."
- Based on a True Story
- Cold-Blooded Torture
- Composite Character: Patty Ryan is a composite of three real-life girls involved in the historical events - Darlene MacGuire, Anna Siscoe and Judy Duke.
- Creepy Circus Music: The end credits, where a children's choir imitates the piping of a circus calliope.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Much of what happens to Sylvia falls under this.
- Dying Dream: The scene of Sylvia's escape and reunion with her parents near the end.
- Foregone Conclusion: The fate of Sylvia.
- Hope Spot: Sylvia's Dying Dream of escaping and reuniting with her parents. You know it won't last, but still.
- There's also a point where, after spending all of her time torturing Sylvia, Gertrude gently washes her and is able to interact with her calmly, indicating that she's got a grip again. She loses it as soon as the local church's priest speaks to her about suspicions that Paula is pregnant, causing her to start lashing out at Sylvia again.
- How We Got Here: The film opens with and switches back and forth to the court trial of Gertrude and the others.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: What Gertrude did to Sylvia in real life was even worse than what the movie shows. The same applies to Paula, whose portrayal in the film implies that she had some sympathy for Sylvia. The Real Life Paula felt the same about torturing Sylvia as her mother did.
- Just Following Orders: The excuse that many of the people involved with Sylvia's death give.
- Kids Are Cruel: What Gertrude did was horrific enough, but that so many other kids would join in makes it even worse.
- Mark of Shame: Gertrude (and later Ricky, when Gertrude is unable to finish) burns "I'M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on Sylvia's stomach with a hot needle.
- Slut Shaming: Gertrude does this to Sylvia for allegedly flirting with a boy.
- Take Me Instead: When Gertie is about to beat both Likens girls, Sylvia offers to take both beatings to spare her disabled sister.
- Teen Pregnancy: Gertrude had her oldest daughter Paula at a young age, and Paula herself gets pregnant by her cheating boyfriend. Gertrude is unable to deal with the thought that Paula made the same mistake she did, leading her to blame poor Sylvia and ultimately torture her to death.
- The Sixties: A rather darker side thereof—less free love and more secrecy and lack of child protective services.
- Torture Cellar: Where Sylvia is eventually kept.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: In the final scenes, Sylvia relates the fates of many of her tormentors.
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Gertrude is this initially as we see her fall apart from the stress but it becomes harder and harder to sympathize with her as her actions become more horrific.
- Would Hurt a Child
- Yank the Dog's Chain: There comes a point where we're lead to believe that Sylvia will escape and be reunited with her family. The audience knows this won't last.