American Crime, An (2007): Sundance Film Fest–Directed by Tommy O’Haver

Sundance Film Festival, Jan 20, 2007 (World Premiere)–Both disturbing and irritating, Tommy O’Haver’s “American Crime,” which received its world premiere yesterday, is one of the most problematic and controversial films to be seen at Sundance this year. Though inspired by an actual case of child abuse and based on court transcripts, “American Crime” is a tweener, neither satisfying as a docu drama nor compelling as a fictionalized, reality-based tale.

Regrettably, the film features the brilliant and reliable Catherine Keener (Oscar-nominated for “Capote” last year) in her most problematic and ultimately dissatisfying performance to date, which is probably a result of being misguided by helmer and co-writer O’Haver.

First Look, the movie’s distributor, should face an uphill battle in placing this excruciatingly violent and yet boring movie in the marketplace, due to dismissive reviews by major critics who consider the film to be morally reprehensible and pointless. Negative-word-mouth is another problems; it’s one of the few premieres that was accompanied with hisses and boos. (It may be a good idea to send the film back to the editing room for major cuts).

The major problem, to put it simply and bluntly, is that director O’Haver fails to offer any illuminating perspective or insight on a child abuse story, which ironically has preoccupied him for the past 20 years.

A mediocre talent, based on the movies he has made thus far, O’Haver began his career with a silly but entertaining gay romantic comedy, “Billy Hollywood’s Screen Kiss,” which premiered at Sundance Festival in 1998, then followed with the inept offbeat teen comedy “Get Over It,” starring Kirsten Dunst. If memory serves, the only decent movie O’Haver has made is “Ella Enchanted,” a charming children’s tale. Though it is his most ambitious movie to date, “American Crime” is also his worst work, one that lacks any redeeming artistic qualities.

First, some basic facts about the story of “American Crime.” On October 26th, 1965, a 16-year-old girl named Sylvia Likens (played in the film by the bright Ellen Page, of “Hard Candy” fame) was found in a suburban home in Indianapolis, Indiana. She had been starved, tortured, and humiliated in a dingy basement by a group of teenagers led by a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), in whose care Sylvia had been left by her parents.

Sylvias tormentors included some of Gertrudes many children as well as other local kids. Many adults were aware of what was going on, but no one did anything to help Sylvia. When the horrifying facts of this vicious crime were made public, the country went into shock, unable to believe that something so barbaric could take place on an ordinary suburban block, in an ordinary midwestern town.

O’Haver said in his introduction to the premiere that he has been consumed by the story of Gertrude Baniszewski and Sylvia Likens ever since he was a teenager growing up in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, this labor of love or obsession results in a dreadful picture. “American Crime” is O’Haver’s unsuccessful attempt to explore a question that has plagued him for decades: What could possibly lead human beings to such unspeakable acts

While based on the court transcripts from the trial, “American Crime” is not a simple recreation of the facts, which is understandable. However, OHavers quest to imagine Gertrudes circumstances, motivations and feelings is utterly disappointing.

The real case may be senseless and based on irrational conduct, but judging by what is unfolding onscreen, O’Haver gives the impression of being clueless about the motivations and emotions of his major protagonists, particularly Gertrude.

Audiences would be willing to accept scenes of brutality and torment, that in this picture involve beating, burning, and carving on Sylvia’s body while locked in the basement (she’s like a punching bag), if writers O’Haver and partner Irene Turner provided a good reason for us to watch them, some dramatic sense, a semblance of narrative logic.

But the movie is so poorly conceived and executed–O’Haver still lacks the basic technical skills required for directing a moviethat the whole yarn becomes a torturous, voyeuristic experience in the negative sense of the term. “American Crime” is the cinematic equivalent of the theater of cruelty, but without the requisite dramatic sense or moral redemption, let alone catharsis.

The only relief one feels at the end of this picture is that it’s over.


Running time: 95 minutes
MPAA rating: R

First Look Pictures
First Look Studios/Killer Films/Oil and Water Productions.
Director: Tommy O’Haver
Screenwriters: Tommy O’Haver, Irene Turner
Producers: Katie Roumel, Jocelyn Hayes-Simpson, Christine Vachon, Henry Winterstern, Kevin Turen
Executive producers: Pamela Koffler, John Wells
Ruth Vitale, Richard Shore
Director of photography: Byron Shah
Production designer: Nathan Amondson
Music: Alan Lazar
Costume designer: Alix Hester
Editor: Melissa Kent


Gertrude Baniszewski: Catherine Keener
Sylvia Likens: Ellen Page
Andy: James Franco, Prosecutor: Bradley Whitford
Paula: Ari Graynor
Lester: Nick Searcy
Betty: Romy Rosemont
Ricky: Evan Peters
Coy: Jeremy Sumpter
Rev. Bill: Michael O’Keefe