In 1965, the troubled Likens parents are forced to leave their teenage daughters Sylvia and Jenny with strangers while they work the season with a traveling carnival. Based on one meeting, father Lester Likens leaves his girls in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, an impoverished mother with six children and more than enough troubles of her own.
At first things seem okay. Sylvia and Jenny get along well with the Baniszewski children, and Sylvia befriends eldest daughter Paula. But Gertrude begins to resent these strangers amongst her own family, blaming them for all their recent troubles. Gradually her rage begins to focus exclusively on sixteen-year-old Sylvia, who seems to embody everything Gertrude lacks: youth, beauty, spirit, exuberance, hope. All things that Sylvia must be punished for.
For these sins, Gertrude confines Sylvia to the grim, dark basement of the Baniszewski home, where Gertrude, her children, and—eventually—the neighborhood kids gather to "punish" her. Until Sylvia learns her lesson.
That lesson culminated in what state prosecutors later called "the worst crime ever committed against a single person in the state of Illinois."
Released in 2007, the film was released alongside another adaptation of the Likens case, The Girl Next Door. Unlike The Girl Next Door, which is highly fictionalized and takes a great number of liberties with the case, An American Crime is based heavily on the actual trial of Gertrude Baniszewski and sticks more closely to the facts.
This film provides examples of:
- Adapted Out: Gertrude had seven children, while she has six in the film.
- 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: Based on the murder of Sylvia Likens, a.k.a. "The Indiana Torture Murder." All dialogue from the courtroom scenes are drawn directly from the court transcripts.
- Bittersweet Ending: Gertrude and her family are found guilty for their involvement in Sylvia's death, but Sylvia of course is dead and it's implied that her sister and parents will forever endure the trauma of what happened to her for years to come. One bright spot is Sylvia's ghost finding comfort at her parents's carnival, the only place she felt safe.
- Blatant Lies: Gertrude's story about Sylvia going to juvie.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Poor Sylvia is forced to endure this and eventually dies due to the horrific abuse she suffered.
- Composite Character: Patty Ryan is a composite of three real-life girls involved in the historical events - Darlene MacGuire, Anna Siscoe, and Judy Duke. It says something about the horror of the case that so many outside people were involved that some of them had to be condensed for the sake of clarity.
- Creepy Circus Music: The end credits, where a children's choir imitates the piping of a circus calliope.
- Destroy the Abusive Home: The ultimate fate of the Baniszewski home. While plans were made to restore the house as a shelter for abused girls, funding fell through, with many in the community blaming lack of donations on the location being too heavily overshadowed by the murder. Two years after the film's release and almost forty-five years after Sylvia's murder, the house was finally demolished. The site is now a church parking lot.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Much of what happens to Sylvia falls under this. The first beating happened because the girls' parents' payment was late, and because Gertrude believed Sylvia was telling lies about Paula.
- Dolled-Up Installment: The Afflicted, a later true crime film with a similar premise, has the alternate title of "Another American Crime".
- The Dog Bites Back: After the police are called, the first thing Jenny does is run to the cops and tell them "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything". The next shot? She tells the court everything Gertrude did to her sister.
- Dying Dream: The scene of Sylvia's escape and reunion with her parents near the end.
- Foregone Conclusion: The fate of Sylvia.
- Historical Beauty Upgrade: In real life, Gertrude looked like this◊.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: What Gertrude did to Sylvia in real life was even worse than what the movie shows (there's no mention, for instance, of how Gertrude, besides the physical abuse, deliberately starved both Sylvia and Jenny). 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.
- The real-life Gertrude and Paula also showed no remorse for their crimes, with Paula becoming a real-life case of Karma Houdini Warranty when she went on to live a normal life under a new name...until 2012, when she was fired from her job as a school counselor's aide when the school found out her true identity.
- Hope Spot:
- Sylvia and Jenny manage to reach their parents on the phone, and manage to hint that they're experiencing trouble, but are interrupted by Gertrude's kids discovering them. note
- Sylvia's Dying Dream of escaping and reuniting with her parents. You know it won't last, but still.
- Paula Banszewski seems to experience a crisis of guilt when she timidly suggests that maybe Sylvia's been punished enough. Paula then gives the family pastor a very, very abbreviated version of what's been happening at the house, prompting him to visit and inquire about Sylvia. Gertrude lies to his face and eventually he leaves without intervening.
- There's 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.
- 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.
- Last Disrespects: Jenny got hers in real life after Gertrude died a mere five years after being released from prison. Upon seeing Gertrude's obituary, Jenny wrote to her mother, "Some good news. Damn old Gertrude died. Ha ha ha! I am glad for that."
- Mama Bear: Most of the abuse starts when Paula complains to Gertrude about Sylvia "spreading lies."
- 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.
- MayDecember Romance: Gertrude and Andy. Keener was 48 at the time of filming, and James Franco was 29. A case of Real Life Writes the Plot, as the real "Andy" was 18 to Gertrude's 34 when they began dating.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Maybe. By the end, when Gertrude is sentenced, her kids cry at the fact of their actions and the loss of their mother. When Gertrude is in prison and sees the spirit of Sylvia, she begins to tear up and tries to mouth the words "I'm sorry", before Sylvia fades away.
- Posthumous Narration: Sylvia is telling her own story.
- The '60s: A rather darker side thereof—less free love and more secrecy and lack of child protective services.
- Slut-Shaming: Gertrude does this to Sylvia for allegedly flirting with a boy.
- Social Services Does Not Exist: Very nearly literally. Many laws regarding mandatory reporting of suspected abuse came into being directly because of this case.
- Take Me Instead: When Gertie is about to beat both Likens girls, Sylvia offers to take both beatings to spare her disabled sister. This appears to be the one point in the film that was invented for drama; in real life, Gertrude initially beat both girls indiscriminately before focusing on Sylvia.
- Teen Pregnancy: Gertrude had her oldest daughter Paula at a young age, and Paula herself gets pregnant by her married, much-older 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.
- 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: Gertrude Baniszewski.
- 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.
- There's also a literal moment of Yanking The Dog's Chain when young Johnny Baniszewski torments the family's starving chained-up pooch by leaving its food bowl just out of its reach. While it seems to be symbolic of Johnny's budding sadism and his later role in torturing Sylvia (as well as Sylvia's own situation), this scene is actually taken from real life.