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When Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) learns that involuntary manslaughter charges are about to be brought against her in the fourth episode of Hulu’s The Girl From Plainville, she pleads with her lawyer (Michael Mosley) to let the authorities hear her out: “Just let me tell my side.”
Eventually, the lawyer talks her out of taking the stand, and Michelle spends most of her own trial sitting silently by while others speak for or about her. But The Girl From Plainville feels like a solemn attempt to honor that first instinctive request, digging beyond the most salacious details to unearth a compassionate and devastating portrait of two teens in trouble.
The Girl From Plainville
Airdate: Tuesday, March 29 (Hulu)
Cast: Elle Fanning, Colton Ryan, Chloë Sevigny, Norbert Leo Butz, Cara Buono, Kai Lennox
Creators: Liz Hannah, Patrick Macmanus
Creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus have based their miniseries on the 2017 Esquire piece of the same title by Jesse Barron, but odds are good much of the audience will be familiar with the basics whether or not they’ve come across that particular article. In 2014, Carter’s boyfriend, Conrad Roy III (played in the show by Colton Ryan), was found to have died by suicide. Shortly thereafter, local police discovered Carter had been egging him on via text messages and phone calls in the days and minutes leading up to his death. She was indicted in 2015, at which point the story exploded all over the media.
Initially, The Girl From Plainville seems to lean into the contemporaneous popular understanding of Michelle as a manipulative monster. The first episode, directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right, Olive Kitteridge), is shot through with the uneasy feeling that something is off about Michelle, even if it’s not quite clear what. In the immediate aftermath of Conrad’s death, Michelle ingratiates herself with his mother, Lynn (a ferocious Chloë Sevigny), who had no idea her son had a girlfriend at all; at home, Michelle demands attention from her own family and friends, many of whom had never heard her so much as mention 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) press on with their case against Michelle, culminating in a 2017 trial 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 leading character in his own right — a bright but haunted young man with demons of his own, and not just a bloodless memory or symbol from someone else’s story. At the same time, we come to see how Conrad fits into the bigger picture of Michelle’s life, her visions for which seem to be informed by wildly romantic YA fare like The Fault in Our Stars and Glee. In one of the show’s saddest, strangest interludes, a mourning Michelle imagines singing and dancing up and down her suburban street with Conrad like they’re Lea Michele and Cory Monteith’s characters from the latter.
With their Massachusetts hometowns separated by nearly an hour’s drive, the teens only meet face-to-face a handful of times after that initial vacation fling. But they develop an intense bond online, trading thousands of messages into the wee hours of the night. The Girl From Plainville visually depicts these exchanges more or less like in-person conversations, so that when Conrad texts Michelle from his bedroom, she’ll speak her responses from the top of his bunk bed, clad in the baggy pink t-shirt he remembers from one of their few offline interactions. It’s a savvy choice that, combined with the heady chemistry between Ryan and Fanning, lets us share in some of the intimacy and immediacy they’re experiencing as they lose themselves in furious bursts of texts.
As their conversations increasingly turn toward despair, The Girl From Plainville takes pains not to romanticize or condone Michelle and Conrad’s choices. Suicide prevention PSAs bookend each episode, and the punishing misery hanging over the entire show makes it clear just how oppressive and far-reaching the consequences of their actions have been. But the more time we spend wrapped up in their perspectives, the harder it becomes to swallow the outside world’s understanding of Michelle as simply a villain and Conrad as her victim — particularly given the nuance Fanning brings to her performance as a girl who transforms throughout the series from a sweet-faced innocent to a desperate romantic to a haunted, expressionless shell of her former self.
What exactly she is, though, The Girl From Plainville has a harder time saying. That the series ultimately offers no straightforward answers to the questions it raises, about why Conrad did what he did or what culpability Michelle bears for it, is both its weakness and its strength. On one hand, the series battles some of the same limitations we’ve seen in shows like Inventing Anna and WeCrashed — namely, the sense that there’s just not that much else to say about a story that’s still so fresh in our minds. And as with so many others in the growing category of shows that focus on unfairly maligned women, like Pam & Tommy, there’s an inevitable discomfort that comes from the realization that we’re 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 feelings over objective truths makes it a more thoughtful and interesting example of the ripped-from-the-headlines miniseries than most. From that angle, its ambiguity feels like an acknowledgment of the bitter truth that there is no explanation that’s going to make sense of the self-inflicted death of an 18-year-old boy, or his 17-year-old girlfriend’s refusal to stop him. The best this series can do is try and understand what was going through these young minds as they traveled down this path — and in doing so, restore to them some of the humanity that’s gotten lost in the life-shattering fallout.
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