When Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) finds out that charges of involuntary manslaughter are being leveled against her in the fourth episode of Hulu’s The girl from Plainvilleshe begs her lawyer (Michael Mosley) to let the authorities hear her: “Let me just tell my side.”
Eventually, the lawyer talks her out of taking a stand, and Michelle spends most of her own trial sitting still while others talk for or about her. But The girl from Plainville feels like a solemn attempt to honor the first instinctive request, digging beyond the worst details to uncover a compassionate and destructive portrait of two teens in trouble.
The girl from Plainville
The bottom line
Destructive in his compassion.
Creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus have based their miniseries on 2017 Esquire piece of the same title by Jesse Barron, but there are good chances that much of the audience will be familiar with the basics, whether they have come across that article or not. In 2014, Carter’s girlfriend, Conrad Roy III (played in the show by Colton Ryan), was found dead by suicide. Shortly afterwards, local police discovered that Carter had egged him on via text messages and phone calls in the days and minutes leading up to his death. She was indicted in 2015, after which the story exploded all over the media.
Initially, The girl from Plainville seems to lean towards the contemporary popular understanding of Michelle as a manipulative monster. The first episode, directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The children are well, Olive Kitteridge), gets shot through with the uneasy feeling that something is wrong with Michelle, even though it’s not entirely clear what. In the immediate aftermath of Conrad’s death, Michelle falls in love with her mother, Lynn (a ferocious Chloë Sevigny), who had no idea her son had a boyfriend; at home, Michelle demands attention from her own family and friends, many of whom had never heard her so much as mentioning Conrad before his passing.
But in the seven hour-long episodes that follow, The girl from Plainville shifts its focus from how the situation looked from the outside to how it felt from the inside for both Michelle and Conrad. While Detective Scott Gordon (Kelly AuCoin) and then Assistant District Attorney Katie Rayburn (Aya Cash) continue their case against Michelle, culminating in a 2017 lawsuit that unfolds over the last three episodes, the series simultaneously lays out a parallel chronological timeline of Michelle and Conrad’s lives, starting with their first chance encounter during separate family trips to Florida in 2012.
That structure allows Conrad to come to the fore as a leading character in his own right – a bright but haunted young man with his own demons and not just a bloodless memory or symbol of someone else’s story. At the same time, we get to see how Conrad fits into the bigger picture of Michelle’s life, as her visions seem to be based on wildly romantic YA awards such as. The fault of our stars and Glee. In one of the series’ saddest, strangest interludes, a grieving Michelle imagines herself singing and dancing up and down her suburban street with Conrad, as if they are Lea Michele and Cory Monteith’s characters from the latter.
With their hometowns in Massachusetts separated by nearly an hour’s drive, teens only meet face-to-face a handful of times after their first vacation. But they develop an intense bond online and trade thousands of messages for the wee hours of the night. The girl from Plainville visually, these exchanges portray more or less as personal conversations, so when Conrad sends text messages to Michelle from her bedroom, she will say her answers from the top of his bunk bed, wearing the baggy pink t-shirt he remembers from one of their few offline interactions. It’s a wise choice that, combined with the heady chemistry between Ryan and Fanning, lets us partake in some of the intimacy and immediacy they experience when they get lost in furious outbursts of lyrics.
As their conversations increasingly turn to despair, The girl from Plainville makes an effort not to romanticize or tolerate Michelle and Conrad’s choices. Suicide prevention PSAs book every episode, and the punitive misery that hangs over the entire show makes it clear how oppressive and far-reaching the consequences of their actions have been. But the more time we spend enveloped in their perspectives, the harder it becomes to swallow the outside world’s understanding of Michelle as just a villain and Conrad as her victim – especially given the nuance Fanning adds to her performance as a girl who transforms throughout series from a sweet innocent to a desperate romantic to a haunted, expressionless shell of her former self.
What exactly she is, though, The girl from Plainville have harder to say. That the series ultimately provides no straightforward answers to the questions it raises, about why Conrad did what he did, or what blame Michelle has for it, is both its weakness and strength. On the one hand, the series struggles against some of the same limitations that we have seen in shows like Inventor Anna and We went down – namely the feeling that there is just not much else to say about a story that is still so fresh in our memory. And as with so many others in the growing category of shows that focus on unfairly abused women who Pam and Tommythere is an inevitable discomfort that comes from the realization that we are consuming entertainment built out of the worst moments of real people’s lives.
On the other hand, The girl from Plainville‘s emphasis on subjective emotions rather than objective truths makes it a more thoughtful and interesting example of the miniseries that is ripped from the headlines than most. From that angle, its ambiguity feels like an acknowledgment of the bitter truth that there is no explanation that would make sense of an 18-year-old boy’s self-inflicted death, or his 17-year-old boyfriend’s refusal to stop him. The best thing this series can do is try to understand what went through these young minds as they traveled down this path – and in doing so, restore to them some of the humanity that has been lost in the life-destroying precipitation.