Film Review – Girl in the Picture
Girl in the Picture
Netflix’s true crime documentaries have a reputation for amplifying the lurid details of their cases. At worst, the approach is meant as shock value to gain attention from viewers. Every so often, though, we’ll get a work that successfully balances the darkness with an earnest human story. That acts as the driving force behind Girl in the Picture (2022). Although it follows the disturbing and heartbreaking account of a life cut too short (as is the standard for the genre), it is made with clarity and compassion. There are certainly monsters in this tale, but they are not the center. This is one of the rare occasions where the perpetrators are not the highlight, but those who suffered because of them and their attempt to find some measure of peace.
Director Skye Borgman is no stranger to true crime. Her previous efforts Abducted in Plain Sight (2017) and Dead Asleep (2021) showed a keen interest in cases that seem almost too preposterous to be real. Girl in the Picture fits right in step. Borgman weaves a labyrinth tale spanning multiple decades, jumping back in forth in time to paint a clear picture out of a mountain of evidence, court documents, witness testimony, and photographs. For a story that contains several moving parts, Borgman (along with editors Fernanda Tornaghi and Edward Wardrip) keeps everything in line so that we never lose our grip on what’s going on. The production draws the lines so that we understand how events that took place in the 1980s inform what happens in 90s and 2000s. It’s a portrait of how evil can ripple and linger throughout decades.
We’re introduced to Tonya Hughes, a 20-year-old stripper who – in 1990 – was found with several injuries outside of Oklahoma City. Sadly, Hughes would succumb to her injuries soon after she was discovered. But the end of her life was only the beginning of the rabbit hole. When her coworkers tried to contact her loved ones, they found out that “Tonya” was not her real name. The mystery of who Tonya really was, her upbringing, and the strange relationship she had with her much older husband, “Clarence,” quickly becomes a riddle inside of an enigma. Investigators went through painstaking efforts to pick apart the false identities and dead ends. With each new revelation, the twisted nature of those involved became more disturbing. Seeing the facial reactions of each witness hints at much they have been affected over what happened.
One of Borgman’s biggest strengths is how she lays out seemingly unrelated names and faces, and meticulously connects the dots as the narrative moves along. We meet another character, Sharon Marshall, a high school teenager whom – in the 1980s – was vivacious and full of promise. Classmates describe her as ambitious, earning a full ride scholarship to Georgia Tech with hopes of one day becoming an aerospace engineer. But behind the friendly and outgoing person was Sharon’s overbearing and protective father, Warren. The relationship between Sharon and her father – and how it connects to the dynamic between Tonya and Clarence – will become a focus for authorities.
Keen observers will immediately see how these pieces fit together, even when we don’t want them to. The way Borgman delays the inevitable truths from being revealed is utterly heartbreaking, because we can see things slowly coming together into stark reality. Admittedly, some of the information was hard to take, especially scenes involving child endangerment. We get photograph after photograph of smiling children, parents, and friends, which works to amplify the impending tragedies. But the production never sensationalizes these bits. Re-enactments are cloaked in heavy shadow or blurred, and the actors’ faces are obscured from our view. Some sequences are stylized a little too heavily – such as when pictures are displayed as though through a microfilm reader – but that never takes away from how compelling the case is.
In lesser true crime docs, too much emphasis is put on the psychology of the criminal. How they grew up and the circumstances that forced them to commit the crime are much traveled pathways. Our Father (2022) is an example of how that approach can toe the line of exploitation. Although Girl in the Picture covers similar ground (let’s be honest, the doc wouldn’t have been made if not for the context of the case), the villain is portrayed almost as an afterthought. Their story is covered merely out of necessity and is only used to help paint a bigger picture of the protagonist. It’s no secret that what happens to Tonya/Sharon is sad to the point of sickening, but Borgman does a fine job of laying out how the loss of this (or any) life touches many. Her direction has a delicate enough touch to allow humanity to seep in and counter the bleakness.
I don’t know if Girl in the Picture does enough to stand out amidst a very crowded room, but the craftsmanship is so assured that hardcore and casual true crime fans will find this a fascinating watch. The film understands that, when it comes to real life tragedy and loss, the crime is not always (and probably shouldn’t be) the main attraction.