‘Girl in the Picture’— as if one mystery was not enough


Photo courtesy of IMDB.com

*Content Warning: This documentary contains sensitive material and subjects. 

On July 6, Netflix launched its new true crime documentary, “The Girl in the Picture.” The project is based on the book “A Beautiful Child” by investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck.

The documentary was number one in the “Today’s Movie” category on Netflix as of June 11th — though I am afraid it was not because the story is compelling. 

“A bright, beloved teenager full of promise. A dark, strange father who inspires dread. Later, the truth about their relationship emerges,” Netflix showcased as a synopsis.  

“The Girl in the Picture,” showcases an extreme case of the most painful crimes you can imagine. It touches on subjects like children and women’s safety, adoption processes, kidnapping investigations, and more. Amid such a great deal of horrific news regarding the well-being of women worldwide, documentaries like this call attention to what is happening behind the scenes in many teenage girls’ lives.

This story follows the short life of Tonya Hughes — who later was found to have many different names. Her story is not like any other sad story of a teenage girl who dies too soon. As viewers watch the truth come out, it’s possible to understand that this story goes to an extent defined as “horrific, sickening, and frightening” by Twitter users

What started as an apparently simple hit-and-run case in Oklahoma turned into an ongoing investigation that required many minds to gather each piece of the puzzle, with many years between each discovery. 

As the story progresses to the end, it gets to an agonizing point in which the question “could things possibly get any worse?” becomes over-used, and reality gets blurry.

Lucy Mangan from The Guardian pointed out how rarely a production “succumb[s] less to the lure of the evildoer,” than within this documentary.“Perhaps it is a sign that we need more of these documentaries to be made by women,” Mangan said, referring to director Skye Borgman.

The documentary’s title refers to a childhood photo of “Tonya” — the image which acted as a guide, pointing investigators to other atrocities her murderer carried out across various states. 

As Birkbeck emphasized — this story is about more than just crime. Indeed, it is a story about how much someone’s identity matters. 

For viewers wanting to learn more about this story, Netflix has a special five-part audio miniseries found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The extra content features complementary information and interviews not seen in the film. Four episodes are available now, with subsequent episodes set to be released weekly.

This will not be a pleasing watch but certainly will bring awareness to problems and crimes that prove that our world and society desperately need to devote much more work and attention toward preventing them. I have to wonder when girls will stop being the face of true crime.