This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
The Pitch: Series co-creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus keep the true-crime story wave going with The Girl From Plainville, an eight-part limited series based on the “texting suicide case.” In 2014, Conrad Roy III died by suicide in Mattapoisett, Massachussets — this tragedy eventually garnered national attention as investigators learned of the role that the teen’s girlfriend, Michelle Carter, played in his death.
Roy’s and Carter’s motivations were previously explored in Erin Lee Carr’s 2019 documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter – and, of course, in all the preceding media coverage of the groundbreaking case. But The Girl From Plainville uses artistic license to venture deeper into the minds of these adolescents, and track how a chance meeting in Florida could lead to such devastation.
The Star-Crossed Lovers (or, the Victim and the Defendant): Elle Fanning stars as Michelle Carter, the eponymous teen girl whose actions in the days leading up to Conrad’s death remain as appalling as they are difficult to understand. Hannah and Macmanus lead their own investigation into Michelle’s background, which includes hospitalization for an eating disorder and what we might now describe as an over-reliance on parasocial relationships.
Michelle has already begun to weave her tale of a great, ultimately doomed love to anyone who will listen, but the series quickly points out the cracks in her story. “Conrad’s dead,” she tearfully declares to her parents David (Kai Lennox) and Gail (Carla Buono) one morning as they sit at the breakfast table. Gail, nonplussed, responds: “Who’s Conrad?”
In this way, The Girl From Plainville regularly challenges the assertions we might be forming: about Michelle, about Conrad, about where the culpability lies. Which isn’t to say that the Hulu drama is some kind of head trip or genre exercise (though it does offer several heightened moments, including what might be the greatest on-screen use of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” to date).
While the facts mostly remain the facts (though there’s the standard disclaimer about some of the names and events having been changed), and while it offers new context for those less familiar with the real-life events, the series is ultimately more curious than compassionate towards Michelle.
Unlike other recent ripped-from-the-headlines series, The Girl From Plainville is just as invested, if not more so, in the life of the victim. Conrad — “Coco” to his loved ones, but not to Michelle, another early sign that their relationship is not as it seems — is regularly at the center of the story. The first episode grounds us in the tragic scene at the Walmart parking lot in 2014, then follows Conrad’s mother Lynn (Chloë Sevigny) as she has the heartbreaking realization that she didn’t know her son as well as she thought.
Throughout the remaining episodes, Conrad (Colton Ryan) comes to life via regular flashbacks: a sweet yet anxious boy who struggles to connect with kids his age. At one point, he admits to Michelle that he finds it easier to talk to the adult men working on his dad’s (Norbert Leo Butz asr Conrad Jr. a.k.a. “Co”) tugboats.
There’s no trace of the poised and imperious Catherine (as in, The Great) in Fanning’s performance. Here, she plays a much more awkward young woman one who would appear to have everything but who has no real friends. Fanning still gives off a discomfiting zeal; the gleam in her eyes as she recreates a scene from Glee or runs on the treadmill is enough to make you flinch.
Michelle comes on too strong with everyone, including Susie (Pearl Amanda Dickson), whom she believes to be a fellow outcast. That’s something Michelle has in common with Conrad, too, though the teens address their isolation in markedly different ways. Ryan captures Conrad’s mix of anger and misery, while still providing glimpses of the intermittent hope the young man felt as he finished school and earned his captain’s license.
Objectionably Dull Courtroom Drama: As well-matched as Fanning and Ryan are, The Girl From Plainville views Michelle and Conrad’s meeting as a kind of disaster, the first in a series of tragedies.
“I don’t know if it’s bad or good that you understand me this way,” Conrad tells Michelle after months of discussing his suicidal ideation. Early on, their connection would seem to be Conrad’s saving grace, and even as it demonstrates how Michelle saw Conrad’s pleas as an opportunity for the role of a lifetime — that of the grieving girlfriend — the series stops short of depicting her as purely calculating.
Though it continues to delve into Michelle’s and Conrad’s mental states, the back half of the series offers the most boilerplate of courtroom drama. The Girl From Plainville works best as a character study, however objectionable we may find one of those characters.
This story is tragic, not just because of the loss of a young life, but because neither Conrad’s parents nor Michelle’s really understood either of them. And that isn’t a trait unique to their generation; Conrad Sr. (Peter Gerety, as the Roy patriarch) launches into a vicious tirade at the mere mention of mental illness and his grandson.
But the investigations by Detective Scott Gordon (Kelly AuCoin) and District Attorney Katie Rayburn (Aya Cash) encroach upon this wrenching look at how a sudden death affects a family. We know, this wouldn’t be true-crime if it didn’t have some police work and courtroom theatrics.
The show delivers on both counts, but these scenes are more obligatory than illuminating. Despite being based on real people, Gordon and Rayburn feel like stock characters: the former, the veteran cop whose gut tells him there’s something more to the case, and the latter, an ambitious attorney who wants to make a name for herself. As defense attorney and local braggart Joseph Cataldo, Michael Mosley shows more personality than the rest of the legal system.
Cash is given a chance to expand on her character; her doubts only grow after she secures an indictment against Michelle. But the courtroom scenes remain by the numbers. Perhaps that’s intentional; the show’s creative team could have wanted to avoid the sensationalism that followed the real case. Commendable as that move may be, though, a more effective storytelling choice might have been to focus on the families and emotional fallout.
The Verdict: The Girl From Plainville avoids the pitfall of other recent true-crime dramas and tries to shed as much light on the victim as the defendant. Despite all the (publicly available) text messages and published articles, the series acknowledges what can never really be known, and how that pain is only matched by the anguish of what Conrad’s family (and Michelle’s) did learn in the course of the investigation.
The show does falter when the actual trial commences; it’s much more compelling as it wrestles with the notions of guilt and blame, finding that there’s more than enough of both to go around.
Where to watch: The Girl From Plainville premieres Tuesday, March 29 at 12:01 a.m. ET on Hulu. Three episodes will be available at launch, followed by one new episode a week.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.