This is the true story of Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page). Her parents worked with traveling carnivals and in 1965, their marriage was on the rocks. They separated largely due to the fact the mother no longer wanted to travel with the carnivals, fearing it was too hard on their daughters Sylvia and Jennie. The father comes back and asks his wife to go with him on a carnival circuit, again, where they can save money for their family. He proposes leaving the girls with a lady from church, Gertrude Baniszewski (Catharine Keener), who also has children and will keep them just a few weeks as a way of making some money. Reluctantly the mother agrees.
As with stories like this, things go well at first until Sylvia and Jennie are beaten with a belt when their parent's money doesn't arrive exactly on time (it is a day late). Then the oldest daughter of Gertrude's becomes jealous of the attention Sylvia is getting from the boys in school and tells her mother that Sylvia is spreading rumors about her. This cements the already growing hatred Gertrude feels towards Sylvia and the abuse escalates. Sylvia somewhat accepts her fate as a way of protecting her sister figuring if Gertrude focuses on her, at least her sister will be spared. Sylvia is eventually locked in the basement where Gertrude encourages her kids and the neighborhood kids to "punish" Sylvia in a variety of harsh and evil ways. The neighbors hear Sylvia's screams coming from the basement, but everyone agrees it is a private matter and it is best if they mind their own business.
On a personal note, I had an extreme emotional reaction to this movie that I will never forget. My mother very rarely talked about it, but eventually she told me her mother was paranoid schizophrenic. Everything was okay while her dad was alive, but when he died when Mom was 5, all bets were suddenly off. Her mom was incredibly cruel to my Mother. She wouldn't give her clothes or blankets in the winter, preferring to watch her freeze. She shaved her head to humiliate her. She physically and even sexually abused her, and these were just the things Mom dared talk about once, when I was older. I am sure there were so many more things that I never knew about. My Mom had a brother and a half brother. They were also encouraged or forced to hurt my Mom as well. Why Mom? I am not sure, I think her mom was jealous of how much her dad loved her. There may not have really been a reason other than her mom was sick.
It all came to an end one summer day when her mother decided to build a brush fire in front of their house. This was alarming enough to the neighbors as it could get out of control and destroy their property. The neighbors came out to see what was going on when they saw my Mom's mom trying to get her sons to throw her daughter on the brush pile. My Mom was screaming and fighting as best she could for her life. After months and months of neighbors ignoring shrieks of pain they must have heard coming from my Mom, someone finally stepped in and called the police.
I had such an emotional reaction because I couldn't help thinking of my Mom as I watched Ellen portray Sylvia. I also couldn't help think how amazing it is that my Mom was able to be a kind and loving Mom after such an extremely difficult childhood. She was an incredible woman to overcome the abuse and forgive her brothers and be able to love anyone after something like that.
I tell this story now because my Mom is gone now and everyone involved in the story, her mom and her brothers are all gone now too. I don't have any family on her side anymore so there is no one to hurt by telling this story that no one else can tell. It is unbelievable to me how close my Mom came to death as a child just because neighbors thought it was all a private matter. If her mom hadn't chosen such a public venue, I am certain she would have been killed in the house eventually. It is chilling to think myself and my brother and his children came that close to never existing.
I also tell this story to say this happens way more often than any of us think and it is NEVER okay to think it isn't our responsibility to step in or speak up. I wish someone had stepped in earlier for Sylvia and I also wish someone would have saved Mom earlier too.