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At first, the story is fascinating. Soon, it becomes dizzying. Quickly, it turns sickening. And eventually, it’s heartbreaking.
The Netflix documentary “Girl in the Picture” traces the twisting tale of a young woman whose body was found with a severe head injury on the side of an Oklahoma City road in April 1990. Not long afterward, she died in a hospital, leaving behind her two-year-old son.
But the end of her life is just the beginning of director Skye Borgman’s lurid and labyrinthine film. Working with editors Fernanda Tornaghi and Edward Wardrip, Borgman juggles a multitude of convoluted and often contradictory elements: decades-old documents; interviews with investigators, family and friends; yearbook memories and, yes, pictures. “Girl in the Picture” jumps around in time as it introduces new clues and players to provide perspective, but it’s consistently coherent and well-paced.
Given the shocking and sensationalistic nature of the subject matter, though, this probably should have been an episode of “Dateline NBC” or some other true-crime series. Aerial footage, reenactments, and some overlong and repetitive interviews fill the story out to feature length. And yet, it’s hard to shake the sensation of sadness that lingers afterward, as well as the unsettling reminder of the evil that exists in this world.
After Tonya Hughes died from her injuries at age 20, some of her fellow dancers at Passions strip club in Tulsa tried to contact her mother. What they learned from that call was that their deceased friend’s name was not actually Tonya Hughes. So, who was she? Getting to the bottom of that mystery has perplexed old pals and veteran investigators alike for decades.
Without giving too much away—because you really should experience these horrors and revelations for yourself if you choose to watch this—Tonya and her older, overprotective husband, Clarence, lived many lives under many names in many states across the country. Who they presented themselves as varied from place to place, depending on their needs at the moment. High school friends in Forest Park, Georgia, recall a vivacious, ambitious teenager who was thrilled to have earned a full-ride scholarship to study aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech. But that girl’s name was Sharon Marshall. And there was something off about her relationship with her father, Warren Marshall, who wouldn’t let her talk on the phone but also took out a full-page yearbook ad congratulating her on her accomplishments—complete with a photo of Sharon with a sexy look in her eyes.
Borgman vividly takes us back to that time with ultra-‘80s images of a young woman with big, blonde hair and even bigger dreams. But her best friend back then, Jenny—who recognized Sharon years later from a TV news segment on the mystery of her identity—also provides the film’s most harrowing anecdote about the kind of abuse Sharon routinely suffered from her father.
And that’s the thing that really sticks with you afterward: the depths of depravity “Girl in the Picture” depicts. Its interviews with figures like retired FBI Special Agent Joe Fitzpatrick may look standard and familiar, situated in a mid-century diner over a cup of coffee. But the deeply shaken look in his eyes as he recalls the details of the case is unmistakable, and unexpected.
Kidnappings and eventual convictions aren’t the end of the story, either. They’re just the start of a new path, leading to evidence of further crimes and more victims, and the need to go back in time all over again. You can’t imagine this story becoming more disturbing, but it does—over and over again. As Fitzpatrick himself puts it at one point: “This horrendous case just got worse.”
Borgman keeps it all connected and clear, which is the most impressive feat of “Girl in the Picture.” She tells this young woman’s complicated story with curiosity but also with sympathy, and ultimately highlights the healing that would seem impossible after so much heartache.
Now playing on Netflix.