Girl in the Picture (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Who is she?

Netflix documentary film “Girl in the Picture”, which was released in last week, looks into one infamous criminal case which will unnerve you a lot as the documentary doles out those disturbing details of the case step by step. Although the overall narrative feels rather manipulate at times, the documentary keeps engaging us as steadily revolving around the true identity of a young woman at the center of the case, and it is poignant to see how she came to get a sort of closure in the end.

The documentary begins with the murder of a 20-year-old female stripper named Tonya Hughes in Oklahoma at one night of April 1990. When she was found at a remote roadside before her eventual death at a local hospital, it was assumed that she was just an unfortunate victim of hit-and-run, but it did not take much time for the local police to suspect her much older husband Clarence. When he attempted to remain as the sole legal guardian of their only son Michael even though it was revealed later that Michael was not his biological son at all, the local police came to pay more attention to him, and they accordingly came to suspect him more than before as noticing many suspicious aspects surrounding Tonya’s death. For example, her co-workers at a local strip club often witnessed signs of domestic abuse from her, and it was quite apparent to them that Michael was a hostage held by Clarence just in case.

And then the situation took a dark turn a few years after Michael was taken to foster parents appointed by the social service. After observing how Michael was often scared of Clarence, his foster parents became more cautious about dealing with Clarence, but then Clarence suddenly kidnapped Michael on one day. When the FBI quickly entered the picture, it subsequently turned out that Clarence Hughes was actually one of several aliases used by a criminal named Franklin Delano Floyd, who had a long history of serious crimes including rape. Furthermore, Tonya Hughes was not actually his dead wife’s real name, and both the FBI and the local police naturally came to wonder more about who the hell she really is.

While the search for Michael and Floyd was continued, the case was widely known all around the country, and that was when the case became all the more bizarre. It was discovered that Tonya and Floyd once lived in Georgia, and, believe or not, they presented themselves as a father and his adolescent daughter to their neighbors while using different names. Tonya was Sharon Marshall, and, as several high school friends of Sharon gladly reminisces about her in front of the camera, we come to gather how spirited and cheerful she was at that time on the surface.

However, Sharon’s friends also came to sense that intangible darkness behind her as she was about to graduate. She was smart enough to accepted by a local technology university, and she was really excited about getting the opportunity for her longtime aspiration, but, to the bafflement of everyone around her, she suddenly quit for no apparent reason. One of her best friends suspected that there was something bad between Sharon and her ‘father’ after Sharon showed her a rather inappropriate gift from him, but then Sharon and her ‘father’ subsequently left the town without any trace.

Through their continued investigation, the FBI discovered what happened next. Sharon was forced by Floyd to work at a local strip club in Florida, but then one of her co-workers came to learn a little too much about them as getting close to them. As a consequence, Tonya and Floyd eventually left their new residence, and that was how they later came to move to Oklahoma.

Anyway, thanks to the extensive efforts from the FBI and the local police, Floyd was eventually arrested and then brought to the following trial on several charges, but there were still a few considerable loose ends. While it was apparent that he killed Michael while running away from the police and the FBI, he did not confess anything about where he buried the body, and he also kept his mouth shut about Tonya’s true identity, though it goes without saying that he kidnapped her when she was very young.

These two unresolved matters haunted the minds of the investigators a lot for next several years, but then there came several significant breakthroughs not long after a nonfiction book on Tonya’s case was published and then received considerable public attention. It was revealed that Tonya actually had two kids and then had them adopted before having Michael, and one of these two kids approached to the author of that nonfiction book because she was really curious about who her biological mother was. In addition, Floyd eventually spoke more about his crimes, and that brought some light onto the case. I must point out that the documentary stumbles more than once when it delves into Tonya’s true identity during its last act, but it is really touching to see the following little personal ceremony held in front of her tombstone, which finally bears her real name at last.

On the whole, “Girl in the Picture”, which is directed by Skye Borgman, is as chilling and fascinating as you can expect from your average true crime documentary, Although it is inherently sensational just like another recent true crime Netflix documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” (2020), the documentary handles its sensitive materials with enough care and consideration at least, and you may come to reflect more on how her life was tragically cut short.

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