For a sense of what the Petito family of Blue Point has endured these past 12 months, it's necessary to go back just over a year to when they were just like any other average family on Long Island. All that changed on or around Sept. 11, 2021.
After friends and parents of 22-year-old Gabby Petito posted on Facebook that she was missing somewhere out west, a whirlwind was unleashed and by the time Petito's remains were discovered in Bridger-Teton National Forest just over a week later (on Sept. 19), her tragedy dominated headlines, TV news and the internet. To date, the hashtag #gabbypetito has been viewed nearly a billion times. Meanwhile, Petito's fiance, Brian Laundrie — who later drove the couple's van back from Wyoming to his parents' home in Florida after strangling Petito — died from a self-inflicted gun shot His remains were discovered Oct. 20.
Late last year, with the tabloid and social media storm raging around them, the Petitos launched a foundation in their daughter's name to raise awareness of domestic violence. They later filed two separate lawsuits — one against the Moab, Utah police, related to an Aug. 12, 2021 encounter with Petito and Laundrie; the other was against Laundrie's parents.
And now, in the midst of all this, comes the Lifetime movie.
A fast turnaround, even by Lifetime's standards, "The Gabby Petito Story," which will air on Oct. 1 at 8 p.m., has raised its own set of difficult questions, beginning with the most obvious: How soon is too soon?
Thora Birch, the movie's director, said in a recent phone interview that after initial contact with family members earlier this year, there has been "radio silence." According to some media reports, Nicole Schmidt — Gabby's mother, who moved from Blue Point to Florida at some point over the past year — has disavowed the movie. But in an email to Newsday, she denied ever even acknowledging it: "Please know that we don't have any comment pertaining to the movie." (The family's Florida-based attorney, Patrick Reilly, also said via email that he would have no comment.)
True crime has been a source of material since the early days of mass entertainment, and still is — from "Dateline" to the "Law & Order" franchise — while Long Island-based crime stories have been particularly well-represented, from the infamous Amy Fisher trilogy (three separate movies on ABC, CBS and NBC) of the early '90s to two more recent ones on the Gilgo Beach murders.
Nevertheless, what makes this particular movie so controversial is that timing. It arrives just past the one-year anniversary of Petito's disappearance while the family is still coping with the aftermath of a tragedy that remains fresh, and, in some ways, is still ongoing.
"The idea of 'too soon' and 'too raw' is a real question," says Jonathan Kuntz, professor of American film history at UCLA. "That's also what creates the fascination to a large degree. Oftentimes we as viewers are interested in mysteries that haven't been completely resolved to our satisfaction but they also inevitably involve fictionalization — filling in what we don't know. Yet here you've got the family of the victim and who are still obviously very distraught and out comes the movie."
Birch — a childhood actor and prominent big screen star of the '90s ("American Beauty") who also plays Nicole Schmidt in the movie — says "I've heard the criticism 'too soon' before and I understand that to an extent, but my response is also a little bit of confusion because I'm wondering — should we even tell her story? If we use this as a cautionary tale, isn't that more of a benefit?"
While "The Gabby Petito Story" is almost entirely based on news stories and other information in the public domain, liberties were taken in a few scenes, most notably the final one where the events leading up to Petito's murder in a remote Wyoming campground are re-created. It's both a jarring and visceral reminder of why the true crime film genre has been controversial for so long: Producers can't possibly know what happens in the last, terrible moment of their subject's life.
But beyond this, "The Gabby Petito Story" is largely dutiful and respectful — an exercise in paint-by-the-numbers filmmaking that otherwise tries to cast Petito's as that cautionary tale. There is also a surreal quality here, which is both unintended and inescapable.
As the movie opens, it flashes back to the bucolic South Shore community of Blue Point circa 2019, with Petito (played by Skyler Samuels, who appeared in Fox's 2017 superhero series, "The Gift'') and Laundrie (TV newcomer Evan Hall) meeting up at a backyard party. "You totally ghosted me" since high school, she playfully says, then tells him "I've been thinking about social media and being an influencer" but "who knows what the future holds?"
Laundrie: "I know what my future holds — spending as much time as I possibly can around you."
The whirlwind romance follows, and soon they have moved to Florida to be closer to Laundrie's parents who are only fleetingly portrayed. (The movie skirts any material that has any bearing on the civil suit the Petitos have filed against the Laundries, which broadly revolves around the questions of what they knew of the whereabouts of their son, and when they knew it.)
It's there the first signs of trouble arise. Jealous and possessive, Laundrie tries to keep Petito from seeing her friends, including her only one, Rose (Monica Moore Smith), who tries to tell her that Laudrie's behavior is problematic. (She calls him "the little bummer boy.") Instead, Petito accepts his marriage proposal and — as the pandemic is winding down — both buy a van and leave for a cross-country trip.
As they go from campground to campground, Petito crafts videos for her YouTube channel, "Van Life '' while Laundrie is dismissive of her efforts. Soon enough, she too begins to have doubts about the relationship; viewers see a happy and carefree Petito in the YouTube posts, but glowering off-camera.
The heart of "The Gabby Petito Story'' is what's now widely known as the "Utah bodycam" video — an hour and 17 minutes long, it was recorded on Aug. 12, then released by the Moab police a month later. Viewed 16 million times so far, the video has also been studied by domestic violence experts for clues about Laundrie's abuse of Petito, and whether the police read those properly.
Like the video, the movie shows they had been fighting before they were stopped by the police on a lonely highway outside the Utah town. Soon, several squad cars arrive, and Laundrie and Petito are separated. As Laundrie laughs nervously, one officer indicates that he may have been the victim of domestic violence. While convulsively sobbing, Petito admits that she may have struck him first. Both are later separated as part of a 24-hour no-contact order.
In the real-life tragedy — as in the movie — Petito would be murdered roughly two weeks later.
Launched in 1990, the so-called Lifetime Movie — there have been hundreds over the years — has undergone numerous changes. Almost always ripped from the headlines, they started off as a quickie ratings-grab gimmick, then, as ratings grew, became a profit engine. The network plowed money back into the films along with a sense of purpose. They were tabloid-y, but tabloid movies with a heart and a sense of mission, about "teens in crisis" or "women in peril." There have been at least 40 with domestic violence themes over the years.
Then, starting in the 2000s, the network sought respectability, with films about important subjects that broached or reflected national conversations; Birch herself starred in a pair of those, including 2003's "Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story," about a teen who had been homeless for years before she got into the Ivy League school.
It is that spirit, Lifetime insists, that it brought to "The Gabby Petito Story."
Sebastian Dungan, the network's vice president of programming, said in a recent phone interview that he started thinking about a true-life movie based on Petito's story a year ago "because we were all captivated by the frenzy around it. As someone who does a lot of true crime/ripped-from-the-headlines, I'm very attuned to which stories grab the national spotlight [but] there was something about the Gabby that we all saw in her social media posts, where she was so pure and happy, and so free and full of potential. We felt like we could know her even though we didn't. Right away people were connected with this young woman and have remained invested with her all this time."
Is the movie too soon, however? "There is always something in these stories that touches on the culture, or in the zeitgeist," and Gabby Petito's — he says — emphatically did and "there are millions of people out there who have followed Gabby's story and who cared about her. For many, they haven't stopped thinking about this."
And yes, he's also heard that rap that this is exploiting her story ("tell that to CNN that ran wall-to-wall stories over two weeks last September") or that it ignores the plight of hundreds of other women — often Indigenous or African American — who also go missing every year. ("We're deep in the development of a number of movies about nonwhite girls who have disappeared.")
But "Gabby has come to represent something, and when we make these movies, we are making them because we want to shine a light on an issue," Dungan says. "This really, ultimately, is about the message — if you feel in your gut that there's something wrong in a relationship or if family and friends are telling you there is, then listen to your gut. That's really the big lesson. Violence against women is a huge problem and it only gets worse when people ignore the signs."
Laura Richards, a criminal behavior analyst formerly with the New Scotland Yard and podcaster — her podcast, "Crime Analyst," is devoted to the Petito case — said in a recent interview that "I want to honor her in my own way so that we can reduce the number of homicides, where it's not four to five women killed every day, as the Violence Policy Center, has determined." (Richards also appears in a "Beyond the Headlines: Gabby Petito" documentary that follows the movie at 10).
But can a ripped-from-the-headlines quickie Lifetime movie accomplish a task like that?
"The Lifetime movie is important if it gives out good information, and the more you can educate people — even as we entertain — it could save a life. I also know her family feels very strongly about this."
Indeed, that may be the family's only consolation.