Girl In The Picture

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Girl In The Picture
"There is a great deal to unravel here, and Borgman has put together an impressively detailed profile of the case." | Photo: Netflix

True crime documentaries, for the most part, tend to be exploitative and shallow, without much investment in production quality, but every now and then a story comes along which is so compelling that it’s worth taking a look at even if you’re not normally a fan of the genre. This particular case intrigued investigators every bit as much, which is partly why it remained open long after others of its ilk had been abandoned. It all centred on the body of a woman who was not who she appeared to be, and on a photograph of a little girl whose name nobody knew.

For the purposes of this review, and in order to avoid spoilers, I shall refer to her as Tonya – the name she was known by in Passions, the club where she worked as a stripper. It was only after her death, when colleagues tracked down an address to go with the name and sent a commiserations card, that they learned that it had been taken from a girl who had died in early childhood, and realised that something really strange was going on. Given that they also had concerns about the man who drove her to and from work, whom she said was her husband, they became increasingly suspicious about what had initially been assumed to be a hit and run. They were also increasingly worried about the safety of Michael, her infant son.

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It’s rare to see strippers get this kind of representation onscreen, with no nudity or glamour required – just as ordinary working people looking out for each other and trying to be good citizens. Their insight is important because outsiders might not understand how unusual some of Tonya’s behaviour was in that context. They make it clear that her relationship was an unhealthy one – that her husband was pimping her out and that she was being abused, with bruises all over her body. They also humanise her, remembering her as an upbeat, helpful person and a doting mother. One of them has had an experience in her own past which, though it is touched on only briefly, lends a weight of horror to what unfolds by situating it in context.

Director Skye Borgman, who is no stranger to the genre, follows the investigation forward. As this happens, we simultaneously move back in time, through the layers of Tonya’s life, through other names and identities, to a schoolgirl living with her dad and attending Forest Park Senior High in Georgia. Though it’s not mentioned, Twin Peaks first aired at the time, and photographs show Tonya posing in a similar way to Laura Palmer, hiding some similar secrets. One wonders if that’s partly why it gripped people’s imagination as it did. This girl dreamed of becoming an aerospace engineer, and won a scholarship to Georgia Tech – so what went wrong? To find out, we have to go back further still.

There is a great deal to unravel here, and Borgman has put together an impressively detailed profile of the case, complete with testimony from many of those who worked on it directly or who came forward to talk about their connections to Tonya. There’s a refreshing lack of the sort of people who merely claim to have been best friends after someone’s name hits the headlines – everybody speaking seems to have a real contribution to make. Given the nature of the subject matter, some of what they reveal is distressing, so viewers with similar trauma in their pasts may wish to exercise caution.

Whilst the film gradually uncovers more and more of Tonya’s story, there’s at least as much mystery to the psychology behind it. Borgman is deliberately cautious here, but there is discussion of the various factors which can keep people in abusive situations and make them disinclined to speak up. The impossibility of knowing what she really understood, thought and felt is part of what makes her story so hard to let go of, even though the individual incidents within it are, sadly, far from unique. The search for her identity carries investigators across a line, makes her too obviously human, so that they – and likely many viewers – are unable to maintain a healthy emotional distance.

Though it never completely escapes true crime sensationalism, Girl In The Picture is made with sincerity and real respect for its participants, and the result will get under your skin.

Reviewed on: 06 Jul 2022
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Girl In The Picture packshot
A young mother's mysterious death and her son's subsequent kidnapping blow open a decades-long mystery about the woman's true identity, and the murderous federal fugitive at the center of it all.

Director: Skye Borgman

Starring: Mark Chinnery, Natalie De Vincentiis, Sarah French, Dana Mackin

Year: 2022

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: US

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Streaming on: Netflix


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