“Why would the world care about our trip?” Brian Laundrie (Evan Hall) asks his fiancé, Gabby Petito (Skyler Samuels), about halfway through The Gabby Petito Story, the new Lifetime movie based on the real-life death of the 22-year-old woman. In the scene, the two had just begun their cross-country road trip from Florida to California. So far in the film, Laundrie has been unsupportive of Petito’s aspirations of being a travel blogger, mocking her desire to document their trip. From this point forward, Laundrie and Petito’s exchanges only escalate, concluding in Petito’s murder, which Laundrie is eventually found guilty of. As it would turn out, the world really cared—and continues to care—about their trip…but for all the wrong reasons.
Released on Oct. 1, only a few weeks after the first anniversary of Petito’s death, The Gabby Petito Story allegedly attempts to show Petito’s side of the story, by trying to “deduce the most realistic portrait of what their relationship could have been like,” according to director Thora Birch. Lifetime said the film aims to “bring to life Gabby and Brian’s doomed love story, including the warning signs that Gabby’s life was in danger,” even releasing the movie as part of its Stop Violence Against Women public affairs initiative. But the crux of the film—the relationship between Petito and Laundrie—is entirely made up, pure speculation meant to satiate the public’s perverse interest in this case.
Petito’s case gripped the nation in August 2021 after she was reported missing by her family while on the road. With the help of fans who had been following her blog, as well as people who had taken an interest in her case after she went missing, police eventually found Petito’s remains in a campsite in Wyoming. After being on the run for weeks, Laundrie’s body was also recovered at a nature reserve in Florida where he had committed suicide, leaving behind a confession about being responsible for Petito’s death.
Aside from the typical mining of horrific true-crime stories for cheap entertainment—which the film and television industry frequently does, retraumatizing families and survivors—what feels most irksome about The Gabby Petito Story’s fantasy-building is how it paints a particularly narrow, straightforward depiction of domestic violence. Perhaps inadvertently, it not only creates a certain narrative around what intimate partner violence (IPV) looks like, but around who “deserves” to be “rescued” from it.
Prior to their roadtrip, the film characterizes Laundrie as ruthlessly controlling—calling Petito hourly while she’s at work, flipping out when she spends time with her new friend Rose, and proposing to her for the single purpose of making sure she can never leave him. And once they’re on the road, Laundrie becomes increasingly jealous of men who interact with Petito, from farmers market vendors to random dudes commenting on her social media posts, screaming at her until their fights turned physical.
In a few scenes, Petito fights back: While on a break from the road, Laundrie overhears a phone call between Petito and her mother, where she talks about the intense highs and lows of their relationships (“I feel like I don’t know where this is going anymore”). In the next scene, when Laundrie confronts Petito about the call, she directly addresses the incident where Laundrie hit her in Utah, and even explicitly calls their relationship “toxic.” And finally, in the couple’s fictionalized breakup scene, Petito ignores Laundrie’s promises that he’ll change, telling him, “We’re not good together,” before explaining that the trip was “illuminating” for her about the reality of their relationship.
By making a perfect victim out of Petito and a perfect villain out of Laundrie—especially in ways that are based in little to no fact—The Gabby Petito Story creates a sterilized version of Gabby’s struggles in a lame attempt to avenge her. Had Petito not defended herself time and time again, she still wouldn’t have deserved to be murdered. Had Laundrie been less abusive and more well-liked by Petito’s friends and family, he still could have believably been a perpetrator of IPV. Rather than humanizing Petito like they sought out to do, the filmmakers only succeeded in making a caricature out of her, taking away any agency over her story she may have posthumously retained and swapping it for their own fanfiction.
Halfway through the movie, after the couple is given a 24-hour no contact order after a physical altercation in Utah, Petito’s friend Rose almost manages to convince her to drive back to Florida without Laundrie. But as Petito lurches the van forward, her phone map pointed towards home, she chooses instead to head to the hotel where Laundrie is staying. This might be the film’s most honest scene: one that hints at how difficult it actually is to leave abusive relationships, which often cycle between periods of violence and harmony.
In a statement released by The AWARE Foundation, Petito’s mother Nichole Schmit said: “We thought our followers should know that the Lifetime movie on Gabby Petito has no connection to the Petito family nor did they give their approval. Lifetime took it upon themselves to make the movie.”
As Schmit’s statement makes clear, The Gabby Petito Story isn’t about offering her family a sense of healing or about uncovering the truth of what happened. In fact, you could even argue that the film isn’t even about Petito at all: All The Gabby Petito Story sets out to do is appeal to the people who parasocially obsessed over her, even from beyond the grave.