Every day we see headlines about all manner of heinous crimes committed by who-knows-what kind of depraved beings, but there is no getting used to it…perhaps the worst of these are crimes committed against children. Of all the known cases of child abuse there are a few that stand out as especially horrific, such as the case of Sylvia Likens, a young teen who met her fate in Indiana in the 1960s.
Sylvia (played by Ellen Page) and her sister Jennie (Hayley McFarland) are befriended by a couple of friendly girls on the bus after church one Sunday afternoon who invite them back to their house to play. The girls get along splendidly and when Sylvia’s and Jennie’s father comes to pick them up he gets an offer from the likable matron of the house, Gertrude (Catherine Keener), to leave his daughters there for a nominal fee so he and his wife can continue working carnivals without worrying about dragging their children along. Out of such a benign beginning a nightmare is born.
Life goes on as usual in the busy house, but as time goes on it becomes clear that its occupants are not quite as they seem…Gertrude is a single mother with a penchant for men much younger than herself and her oldest daughter Paula (Ari Graynor) seems keen to follow in her mother’s footsteps but with older, married men. When Sylvia attempts to save Paula from a bad situation with one of Paula’s male friends she unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will prove just how disturbed this family really is.
I actually knew nothing about this particular case when I first watched the movie, in fact I’d skipped over the movie many times on the movie channels because at a glance I thought it was American Crime which I had already seen, but finally saw it by chance one night and it left quite an impression. As you’ve probably already guessed the movie is based on a true story and while steps were taken to keep it from being graphic it has some very disturbing content…we’re talking about a young girl who was cut, burned, branded, beat, and subjected to many more forms of torture by her caretaker, the other kids she lived with and even various neighborhood peers. I’m told the facts of the case were much more graphic than it was made in the movie and I am curious to know what those were for education’s sake, but the film definitely included enough to horrify and really drive the point home.
I’m not sure exactly how this film was received by the public at large because, as I mentioned, I found it by accident…but I’d never heard of it before and it doesn’t seem to be very well-known and I’m at a loss of why that is…certainly it’s exceptionally disturbing, but played out very well and will definitely plant an image in the viewer’s mind that will not go away very quickly. Despite being based on a true story there is an element of drama and will certainly keep a person’s attention…the ending can be slightly confusing and I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, I personally thought it was very well put-together and had a lot of impact when the actual events were revealed.
For acting, I don’t think they could have found anyone better than Catherine Keener to play the part f Gertrude, she did very well at progressing from a harmless housewife to a deranged abuser convincingly, perhaps making it easier to see how someone could have been taken in by a person that could do something like that to a young girl. As for Ellen Page…I’d only ever seen her in a very minor part in X-Men: The Last Stand before and so never gotten a good idea of her skills, now all I can say is that is one very talented actress, she did an awesome job in what must have been a challenging role and I look forward to seeing more from her.
Overall I think this must have been a very difficult subject to create a movie around for its very sensitive and disturbing nature but that writer/director Tommy O’Haver handled very well and created a poignant film that dragged on occasion but for the most part moved along steadily. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this movie to everyone because of its nature, though it tells a story that needs to be remembered as much as A Child Called It to help prevent history from repeating itself.