The power of suggestion, the pressure of peer groups, the anxiety of teenagers and the world lived within speech bubbles in mobile phone apps are just some of the themes explored in Lionsgate Play’s true crime drama series The Girl From Plainville.
Based on events that surrounded the death by suicide of 18-year-old Conrad Roy, this rather bleak story explores the involvement of his girlfriend Michelle Carter, who was accused of urging him to take his own life. Even though she was miles away, and in touch with him mostly over text messages, Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The slow-burn series has been created by Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus. At times, it feels that the “texting suicide” case could have been truncated into a well-paced feature film. But the creators take a leisurely route, gradually sucking you into the complexities of mental health, teenage angst, loneliness and family dynamics. The emotional fragility of the characters, their mercurial behaviour and Michelle’s motives in particular are explored over eight episodes.
Conrad (Colton Ryan) and Michelle (Elle Fanning) meet during a vacation in Florida. They bond over their social awkwardness. Once they return to their hometowns, about an hour away from each other, they barely meet. Their romance is mostly conducted through text messages.
The makers use the device of imagining Conrad and Michelle having short-message chats face to face. But the device is overused and dilutes the impact of the emotionless, text-based version of the relationship, transcripts of which were used in the ensuing court case. Several recent films have used this method more effectively than Plainville.
Besides Conrad and Michelle, we see both sets of parents going through their own trauma and shock, especially the Carters, who hadn’t heard of Conrad until his death. Chloe Sevigny plays Conrad’s mother with measured tenderness, carrying pain and confusion about her son’s passing and suspicion of Michelle’s excessive reaction to Conrad’s death, including enjoying all the attention as the bereaved girlfriend.
Elle Fanning deftly portrays a teenager’s growing pains, including body image issues and an eating disorder. She’s sometimes the sweet blond who tries too hard to break into a friend’s group, at times a supportive but also troubled girlfriend. She’s obsessed with the high school series Glee and mimics actress Lea Michele’s impassioned tribute to the death of co-actor Cory Monteith. Colton Ryan captures Conrad’s anxiety, suicidal thoughts, solitude and conflict, making them far more relatable than Fanning’s Fatal Attraction-esque conduct.
The series revisits the court trial that began in 2017, three years after Conrad’s death, in which chat records, phone call records and message history extracted from both phones to establish Michelle’s culpability. It’s a disturbing story, especially in the way Michelle capitalises on Conrad’s vulnerability, bringing up a number of questions about modern love in the time of social media and Messenger.