Aask your friends if they’ve seen Netflix Girl in the picture. If they did, you will know immediately. It’s because their faces are crinkling and they look troubled. “One of the most horrible, sickening and scary things I have ever seen,” one person wrote on Twitter. “I literally feel sick,” wrote another. Strangely, I think they were compliments. In TV land, after all, dead women = great content. But let me be clear: this is another despicable Netflix project that parades another grotesque story in the name of winning bored eyeballs.
Directed by Skye Borgman, who made the equally disturbing Removed in plain sight for Netflix, Girl in the picture reveals the mystery behind the death of a young woman and the kidnapping of her son. Tonya Hughes was the victim of a hit-and-run in 1990. Except… her name wasn’t really Tonya, and it probably wasn’t a hit-and-run. It turns out that her real name was Sharon Marshall, and the man who claimed to be her husband was actually her father. Except…her name wasn’t really Sharon, and the man isn’t really her father. etc., etc. Viewers can only watch helplessly as the rug is pulled from under them, over and over again, and the story gets progressively more heartbreaking.
Borgman’s film is, if nothing else, a competent example of the genre. It’s full of ominous music and gritty dramatizations of pivotal scenes. At just over an hour and a half, it’s not bloated and endless. Many essential protagonists – those who are not dead or in prison, at least – have agreed to be interviewed and to share moving testimonies about Tonya/Sharon. Girl in the picture actually answers the questions it raises, namely: what was Tonya/Sharon’s true identity, and what happened to her son Michael? Too many cynical true-crime documentaries of late have used sleight of hand to mask the fact that they are empty and pointless, unable to explain the mysteries that surround them. And, crucially for Netflix, a streaming platform that is losing subscribers, Girl in the picture is the kind of lustful viewing that is hard to turn away from. It’s so fast that he’s starting to feel relentless.
All of this, however, is the problem. Do true crime as ethically as possible: consult families, center victims, avoid graphic images. But the conventions of the true crime genre, from spooky music to orchestrated beats, always turn into passive voyeurs. A telling tweet said: ‘Still watched many messed up documentaries Girl in the picture on Netflix managed to keep me shocked and horrified throughout. Someone responds: “Same! I never lost interest for a second! It was unreal!” When the goal is to stare at people on their screens and make sure they don’t move, it feels too much like a game.
Towards the end, we have the feeling that Girl in the picture tried to uncover the true identity of this woman in service to something greater. He wants to give it back its personality. Surely that’s why so many friends and family members are here to tell us about their pain. But it’s undermined by the thrills of the edge of your seat that preceded it. You can’t pass yourself off as activism when in reality you’re click bait. “It’s more than just a crime story,” someone says at one point. But I don’t know if that’s the case – not for Netflix, at least.