Girl in the Picture (2022) Netflix Review: “In the 27 years I have worked for the FBI, I’ve come close to closing every case,” says FBI agent Joe Fitzpatrick. “Two of them that I could not close at the time I retired was finding Michael and identifying Sharon.”
Both these cases are linked together in shocking and disturbing ways beyond comprehension in Netflix’s true crime documentary, Girl in the Picture. It starts with the tale of an injured woman on the roads of Oklahoma City, and then as the links are made to her origin, her identity (read, identities), and her story- it becomes a dizzying, bone-chilling tale of deceit and abuse. Director Skye Borgman, who made Abducted in Plain Sight (2017), returns to her territory of telling stories that are fascinating and horrible at the same time.
Later the injured woman passes away. She is Tonya Hughes, a 20-something woman, as her much older husband Clarence testifies. Their two-year-old son Michael is in foster care. She was working as a stripper in Tulsa. Something doesn’t sit right, so her mother is informed. She clarifies that the deceased cannot be her daughter since she died 20 years ago when she was barely 18 months. The young woman was using a forged identity, then who was she? Who is her husband? What is her name?
What follows is a complex, decades-long case that no one can be prepared for. Through archival footage, interviews with friends and investigators, documents, and pictures- a labyrinth-like tale is uncovered. Girl in the Picture knows the head-scratch of a narrative it presents and directs the viewers in the same terrain of multiple timelines, shifting one perspective to another as one lie leads to another. We learn that the woman is not Tonya but actually Sharon Marshall, a beautiful and intelligent girl whose dream was to become an aerospace engineer. “It was all she worked for.” recalls one of her high school friends. Another close friend recalls a ghastly incident of rape and gun violence. Shift to another timeline, when their foster parents of Michael recall how afraid he was of his father’s visits. A paternity test shows that Michael is not his biological child. The parental rights are immediately taken away from Clarence. He doesn’t stop there. He kidnaps Michael from school at gunpoint and disappears. What happens to the missing child?
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The rest, and mind you- there is a lot more to this case, is better left unsaid. The less you know, the better. Girl in the Picture, aided with a sensitive eye for the victimized, leaves you breathless in its relentless run for finding the truth. Borgman, aided by the razor-sharp editing of Fernanda Tornaghi and Edward Wardrip, confidently jumps timelines and propels the complex tale with grit and ambition. The staging of the anecdotes is clean and precise. The detail is in the way the victims are placed in front- front, and center. Through the evolving pictures of Tonya/Sharon/(…), the narrative investigation traces her growth, providing her the agency she never had over her life. Here was a woman who was trapped, who didn’t know how to get out. Who was bright and intelligent. Here was a woman who existed in the ways she comforted herself. “I’m okay; you will be okay,” she says to her friend after an unspeakable incident of abuse.
Girl in the Picture is a gut-punch of a tale, told with dignity and ferocity. The discomforting search for truth and justice succeeds in its sensitive handling of the subject matter as well as the subject and in serving the determination of journalist Matt Birkbeck- who wrote two books on this case and also served as the executive producer of the film. It finds unexpected moments of tenderness and sympathy. It is chaotic but organized in its effort. What to expect- it’s a horrific case, full of instances where one finds it hard to imagine the depths of abuse and senseless monstrosity that has been perpetuated. The perpetrator is serving a lifetime sentence- and that is all that can be said about him. In the eyes of a woman, finding grace and unimaginable strength in the eyes of another woman held in pictures, there is unmatched poignancy. This one’s hard to believe and even harder to forget.
Girl in The Picture Movie Links: IMDb
Director: Skye Borgman