Girl In The Picture sets a precedent for how true crime documentaries should honour victims

Girl In The Picture, Netflix’s latest true crime offering, may seem like a simple premise, but it’s the streaming platform’s most chilling documentary yet, according to one Stylist writer. 

Content note: this article contains references to sexual abuse that readers may find upsetting

As a devoted true crime fan, the words “Netflix” and “true crime documentary” are all that’s needed to guarantee I’ll be streaming it immediately. When Abducted In Plain Sight was released on the platform back in 2017, it set Twitter alight with its twists, turns and the confusion generated by the subject matter. (Trust me, you have to watch it to know just what I’m referencing.)

So when news that the same director, Skye Borgman, was bringing us a new true crime documentary, I instantly knew it was going to be a head-scratcher. Borgman’s reputation as a director with a knack for bringing these stories to a new light is enough to guarantee one hell of an unmissable watch.

Girl In The Picture, on the face of it, sounds simple. It centres on the case of Tonya Hughes and soon becomes a complicated tale of forged identity, fake personas and abuse. When 20-year-old Tonya is found unconscious on the side of a road in 1990 – and later dies of her injuries – we soon realise that nobody actually knows who she is. Her friends ring her mother to notify her of Tonya’s death, but when she tells them that her daughter died as a baby two decades earlier, there’s only one question to answer: who actually is this woman? 

The photo that kickstarted the investigation: Franklin Floyd/Warren/Clarence with Sharon Marshall/Suzanne Marie Sevakis/Tonya Hughes.

Simply put, nothing can quite prepare you for what unfolds in this documentary. We learn that Tonya was actually Sharon Marshall, a “girl next door” who was bubbly, fun-loving and top of her class. So much so that she secured a full scholarship to study aerospace engineering at college. It was her dream and one that her friends and classmates were immensely proud of. But her hopes were suddenly halted once she got pregnant and, along with her single father Warren, they disappear. 

We hear from people who knew Sharon and one particular friend who, on the only sleepover she ever had at Sharon and Warren’s home, recounts a chilling instance of rape and gun violence. We quickly get the picture that Warren was not only an unfit father but a serial abuser and terribly controlling over Sharon’s life. He buys his daughter lingerie – much to her friend’s confusion – and things quickly escalate from hauntingly chilling to downright bizarre.

Because, upon leaving their home after Sharon’s surprise pregnancy, the pair get married. So when Tonya’s body is found in 1990, the eyes of suspicion are cast firmly on her much older husband, Clarence. And, you guessed it, Clarence is actually Warren. 

While the multiple name changes are hard to keep track of, something that brings this documentary to life is the focus of the people around Sharon’s life who endeavored to find out the truth: the truth about her identity, how she died, what happened to her son Michael and who Clarence/Warren actually was.

We find out that Sharon’s life as Tonya was one plagued by manipulation and a father figure-turned-husband who forced her to work in a strip club to make money. Unlike a lot of true crime content, though, this documentary doesn’t seek to platform Warren, his life, history or actions. We hear of them, of course, but the focus is rightfully placed on bringing meaning and clarity to Sharon’s own life.

The film is bleak at the best of times but moments of hope are interspersed throughout when we hear of the group effort it took to find justice for Sharon; from the FBI agents who persistently questioned Warren (whose real name is Franklin Floyd), the former friends of Sharon’s who helped in the ongoing criminal case and award-winning investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck. This documentary does a stellar job of putting Sharon (whose real name is Suzanne Sevakis) front and centre in a way that many true crime documentaries can learn from.  

Suzanne Sevakis.

It may, at times, feel like a labyrinthian film of timelines and names to remember, but the organised chaos of the documentary only seeks to emulate the nature of Suzanne own life – a woman who was kidnapped at a young age, abused and thrust into a life where she didn’t even know her own true identity.

While much of the film will leave you with your mouth agape and shocked at the nonsensical crimes at the centre of it, in an unexpected turn, you’ll finish it feeling perhaps a little more hopeful. Suzanne’s identity is mapped out for the viewer, but also for her remaining family members. And while it is far from a happy and neat ending, Girl In The Picture sets a precedent for how all true crime documentaries should carefully and poignantly handle their female victims – by refusing to shine an unnecessary spotlight on the evil men behind them.

Girl In The Picture is available to watch on Netflix now. 

Images: Netflix

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