Despite a strong performance from Elle Fanning, Michelle Carter, the teenager accused of convincing her boyfriend to commit suicide, remains a mystery. Photo: Steve Dietl/HULU
Right now, television loves nothing more than an experienced liar.
The first three months of 2022, an era of must-deceive TV, focused on series about a variety of false-tellers: CEOs of start-up companies who tell both small and massive lies in their quest for market dominance (Super Pumped , The Dropout , WeCrashed), scammers who scam unsuspecting people out of a lot of money (Inventing Anna, The Tinder Swindler), team owners who don’t talk openly about their financial situation (Winning Time), and suburban snobs who try to trick other people to frame a murder (The Pam Thing). The Girl From Plainville, a new Hulu limited series that debuts today, introduces another portrayal of a master con artist: a teen who misrepresents her role and grief over the untimely death of her boyfriend.
Like the previously cited examples, The Girl From Plainville is based on a true story, the so-called SMS suicide case, in which Michelle Carter was convicted of manslaughter by negligence for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to take his own life. The series begins on July 13, 2014, the day of Conrad’s death, and begins by portraying the shock and anguish of his mother, Lynn (Chloë Sevigny); his father Conrad II or “Co” (Norbert Leo Butz); and Michelle (Elle Fanning), a girl from a nearby town in Massachusetts whom none of Conrad’s family knew, when they learn that Conrad (Colton Ryan) is no longer around. The narrative then follows the events that occur after this loss as Michelle becomes fixated on playing the role of the grieving widow as the police and eventually the prosecutors begin to investigate the circumstances of Conrad’s death. Flashbacks explaining how Conrad and Michelle met and providing a glimpse of the young man’s pre-existing anxiety and depression are also shown.
It all adds up to a series that’s as much about how these two teenagers feel misunderstood and marginalized as it is about what Michelle Carter did and why she did it. If you come to The Girl From Plainville looking for answers to questions that start with why, you will be disappointed. One of the flaws of this well-acted but overly stretched limited series is that we never get enough insight into Michelle’s behavior. Considering that creators Liz Hannah (The Post) and Patrick Macmanus (Dr. Death) adapted this from an Esquire article about a widely publicized case, the lack of additional perspective may make some wonder why they chose a screenplay version have to watch a story she knows.
The first three episodes, out today on Hulu — with the remaining five coming weekly — make a strong case for The Girl From Plainville as a character study, particularly from Michelle, who is played with instinctive fluidity by Fanning. A high school student who is included but not necessarily hugged by her classmates, Fanning’s Michelle appears vulnerable and insecure to many of her friends, but is fixed and disturbed in more private moments. Her defining trait, at least as the series tells it, is a desire to attract attention and be liked. To that end, it is implied, though never confirmed, that she fueled Conrad’s suicidal thoughts in order to be showered with sympathy.
The scene that closes episode one makes a compelling case for this interpretation. Alone in her bedroom, Michelle watches herself in the mirror as she tries to recreate the scene from Glee where Lea Michele’s Rachel sings “Make You Feel My Love” in tribute to Finn, who died shortly after in the Fox musical dramedy The Actor who played him, Cory Monteith, died of an accidental drug overdose. With Glee, this was a moment where art mimicked life, so it’s oddly fitting that Michelle is trying to mimic Michele here, trying to test her agony to see if she can channel it just as effectively. Fanning is both fascinating and disturbing as she demonstrates how quickly Michelle can toggle heightened emotions on, off, and back on.
While Michelle is obviously a big focus in Plainville, the show devotes a good chunk of time to delving into Conrad’s psyche and his relationship with his parents, who believe their son is doing better after recovering from a previous suicide attempt. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the series is the portrayal of their grief, guilt, and alternate attempts to blame and support one another. Sevigny, portraying Lynn as a dazed woman exhausted with grief, is excellent, as is Butz.
One of the challenges the series faces is that much of Michelle and Conrad’s relationship took place via text messages, which could have been illustrated more conventionally by Fanning and Ryan clicking on their phones from different locations. Instead, The Girl From Plainville dramatizes these conversations by having the two speak the lines from their text messages face-to-face, a choice that both emphasizes the intimacy and bluntness of their back-and-forth and conjures the illusion that they’ve spent a lot of time in the presence of the other. They have not. They were voices in the minds of others. Fantasy sequences of all kinds, sometimes even of a musical nature, run through here like a red thread and underline a deep distancing from reality, especially for Michelle. All of the series’ directors, including Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Hannah, slide in and out of these more imaginative, slightly terrifying sequences gracefully and seamlessly.
But as the episodes progress, especially as the trial begins, the time it takes to tell this story weighs heavily. It’s also clear that there will eventually be a fuller rehash of Conrad’s death, which inevitably feels a tad spooky, despite the sensitivity of the showrunners and their creative team to the material. By the end of the series, Michelle, whose eyebrows are now dark and unintentionally menacing, has built such a hard fortress around herself that it seems impossible to penetrate her heart and understand it. As much as Fanning’s performance illuminates and informs our ideas about her character, The Girl From Plainville can never fully explain the person to whom the title refers. Ultimately, this series has to settle for the fact that all it can tell us is exactly what happened, as the real mystery is still what made Michelle Carter tick.