The girl in the photo: how is the disturbing Netflix documentary that is among the most viewed on the platform

The girl in the photo (Girl in the Picture, United States/2022). Address: Skye Borgman. Photography: Arlene and Michael Nelson. Music: Jimmy Stoffer. Edition: Fernanda Tornaghi. With: Dana Mackin, Robert Christopher Smith, Sarah French, Mark Chinnery. Duration: 100 minutes. Available in: Netflix. Our opinion: very good.

It is complex to analyze a documentary like The girl in the photo and not feel, at least, a disturbing sensation that we were voyeurs of a harrowing story. Therefore, the task that a priori had Skye Borgman was not to repeat the same approach that his other “true crime” documentary for Netflix, Abducted in Plain Sight. In that case, the director limited herself to somewhat banal recreations of -also- horrifying situations, including valuable testimonies, but everything was tinged with a certain narrative superficiality. The opposite happens with his recent production, which not only does not move from the most watched on the platform in our country but also generated the “water cooler” effect but in the virtual world, where Borgman’s work is commented on with a logical feeling of deep anguish .

From the story that is narrated (and the threads that connect it with so many others) a debate emerges that deserves to be taken seriously due to the topics that are presented to us: child abuse, femicide and the search for identity, among many others. Without going further, the poster that promotes the documentary is, precisely, the clearest and most devastating visual representation of what we will be told gradually and that has Tonya Hughes as its central figure. The girl in the photo starts with the investigation of the death of that young woman who, in 1990, appears wounded on the side of the road in Oklahoma and who later dies at the age of 20 in the hospital to which she was transferred. The first edge on which Borgman works is the reason why Tonya dies when, according to the doctors who treated her, she did not have too serious injuries nor compatible with those of a road accident. Thus Another of the key figures in the documentary enters the scene, Franklin Delano Floyd, the young woman’s husband, who was also the mother of a child, Michael.

The panorama gets bogged down when Borgman’s work fragments Tonya and makes us know her through two ways. On the one hand, the world of the night, and the strip club in Tampa where she worked to support her child. On the other, the high school from which she had graduated, where she was known as Michelle Hughes, loved and respected by her classmates, an exemplary student with a great future ahead of her. The relationship with her father is what disrupts Michelle’s plans and the reason – at least initially – why they constantly move and she cannot make her life alone anywhere.

Through numerous testimonies, from the best friend from high school to the police chiefs who investigated Michelle’s death, Borgman begins to answer one of the many questions: what was the true link between that young woman and Franklin Floyd. The answer is not easy to digest and the documentary tries not to fall into the common places of the genre, where almost everything is passed through the same sieve: suspenseful music when it is due, manipulative delay of the testimonies, a plot twist so that keep paying attention…

The Girl in the Picture, directed by Skye BorgmanNetflix

While Borgman is occasionally tempted by those tools at his disposal to conceive compelling work, he sets them aside as the story thickens. To that end, he introduces Matt Birkbeck, the author of the best-selling A Beautiful Child, who searched for years for the identity of the girl from a photo that revealed much more than could be believed. The union between that search and what actually happened with Michelle is told with great respect for the young woman’s suffering and the consequences of Floyd’s actions. In that section, the documentary takes on an inescapable force but, at the same time, it becomes unbearable to watch.

The domino effect that put Michelle in the wrong place causes such pain that The girl in the photo it is no longer just another documentary, even the act of recommending it can represent a paradox. Are we really willing to witness the suffering of others? When we perceive the value of this search for identity that Birkbeck and company undertake, the answer is that any work that puts the magnifying glass, without gadgets, on the lack of protection that women suffer in an abject world is necessary, especially when there is a gender perspective behind, in this case provided by the director of a documentary difficult to forget.

The girl in the photo is available on Netflix.