May 16, 2008
92 Minutes
Tommy O’Haver [Fabulous! The Story Of Queer Cinema]

Yikes. Sylvia (Ellen Page) is the daughter of a carny couple who is left with a normal-seeming woman who has a brood of her own children and entertains other kids from the neighborhood in her average Indiana home. Her parents promise to pay $20 a month to the single mom, played by Catherine Keener. When the first check is late, Page and her younger sister are taken to the basement and given the belt. This turns out to be the least brutal “punishment” that Sylvia is given.

Based on the actual transcripts of the court case from 1966, this film is even more shocking that it first appears. Keener, while trying to “protect” her loose and pregnant oldest daughter, continues to “punish” Sylvia for simply not being as big a screw-up as her own daughter. She is burned with cigarettes, branded with hot safety pins, sexually assaulted, and slapped repeatedly. And then it gets worse. Her own young children can’t hide their basement-dwelling curiosity, and they begin invite neighborhood friends over to burn, beat, and hose down Sylvia who is kept in the basement. That these kids do this with minimal provoking is the most horrifying aspect of this horrifying (and true) story.

And the neighbors, hearing the screams, continued to rake leaves like nothing was wrong. “Best we keep to ourselves.”

Page is spectacular and you will forget she had anything to do with JUNO after watching this. Keener’s character slowly devolves into a monster, but never a cardboard cutout monster. The kids are sufficiently scary in a numbed-by-what-they’ve-seen way.

Not exactly a happy time at the movies, but worth it for the Keener and Page performances.

7.6 IMDB


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Written by Michael W. Cummins