Is Girl in the Picture one of the the most messed up documentaries ever?

Girl in the Picture - Courtesy Netflix
Girl in the Picture - Courtesy Netflix /

By this time, word of mouth may have come around your way about Netflix’s new true crime documentary Girl in the Picture, as viewers calling it “one of the most messed up documentaries of all time” urge their friends to see it before they see story spoilers.  This word of mouth is taking the film to the top of Netflix’s “Most Watched” selections (look for it in the Top 10 soon!).  The horrors of Girl in the Picture supersede those in Skye Borgman‘s previous Netflix documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight which is incredibly messed up in its own right.

The story begins in spring 1990 with the discovery of a barely living woman’s body on the side of the road by passers by – presumably from a hit-and-run.  She is taken to the nearest hospital where her much older husband, Clarence Hughes, identifies her as 20-year-old Tonya Hughes.  Doctors and nurses notices bruises and injuries that indicate long term physical abuse, but five days later she’s dead, leaving a mystery that ultimately spans over thirty years.

Tonya’s young son Michael was sent to live with foster parents after her death, but Clarence fought for custody and visitation in court.  Before his visits with Michael, the boy would get very upset calling Clarence that “mean mean man.”  Once paternity tests concluded he was not the boy’s biological father, visitation was stopped, but after four years of being fostered by a loving family, Clarence – who by then had been identified as 20+ year fugitive Franklin Delano Floyd – kidnapped Michael from his school by taking the principal at gunpoint, and the boy was never seen again.

Skye Borgman’s Girl in the Picture delivers the story in a non-sensationalistic way, defining the story through the people Tonya touched instead of the villain who destroyed her.

The friends that come forward after Tonya’s death reveal her to be a young woman who, despite horrific abuse, was determined to make the best of the life she had.  At the time of her death she worked as a stripper, and it was her co-workers that made sure she had a proper tombstone.  High school friends recognized their classmate on the news, known to them not as Tonya, but as Sharon.  They remember her fondly as someone who was smart and ambitions – she wanted to be an aerospace engineer – and a friend to all, including the bullied and outcast.

Man posed behind young girl in professional photo, girl looks traumatized in Girl in the Picture
Girl in the Picture – Courtesy Netflix /

The title of the documentary comes from a single, seemingly normal picture of a girl and her “father.”  Looking deeper into the young girl’s expression and her sad, haunted eyes reveal something much more sinister happening behind the scenes.  It is this picture, this face, that impassioned investigators to continue searching for Tonya’s true identity even decades after her violent end.  I will not give away spoilers as so many reviews and articles do, because this story is best discovered the way it unfolds through the compassion and humanity of the storytellers that lived it in Skye Borgman’s documentary.

Girl in the Picture premiered on Netflix on July 6th, runs approximately an hour and 42 minutes, and is currently available on the streaming app.

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What is the most “messed up” documentary you’ve ever seen?  Sound off in the comments!