The Girl from Plainville review: Elle Fanning anchors heavy-hearted true crime series

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Elle Fanning (left) plays Michelle Carter in ‘The Girl from Plainville’  (Hulu)
Elle Fanning (left) plays Michelle Carter in ‘The Girl from Plainville’ (Hulu)

Conrad Roy III, known to his family as “Coco”, was an 18-year-old from Mattapoisett, Massachusetts who died by suicide in July 2014. In the wake of his death it emerged that his girlfriend Michelle Carter, from nearby Plainville, had repeatedly texted, phoned and emailed Roy encouraging him to kill himself. In their final phone call, she ordered him to get back inside the truck he had left in fear as it filled with carbon monoxide. In 2017, Carter stood trial charged with involuntary manslaughter for her part in Roy’s death, in what became a high-profile and precedent-setting court case.

The sad, complicated tragedy of Carter and Roy has been told several times before. There was a 2018 Lifetime movie starring Bella Thorne and Austin P McKenzie, Conrad & Michelle: If Words Could Kill, and a 2019 HBO documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. There was also a sensitively written 2017 Esquire feature by Jesse Barron, The Girl From Plainville, which inspired and informed this new Hulu adaptation from writers Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus. While the empathetic series doesn’t go so far as to extend Carter forgiveness for the awful crime of which she was eventually convicted, it does offer a modicum of understanding as to how and why this adolescent tragedy unfolded.

At the heart of that achievement is Elle Fanning’s nuanced portrayal of Carter herself. Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise that Fanning has less freedom to enjoy herself than in her other Hulu show, the sharp-witted historical comedy The Great. This performance has to be more subtle and controlled, and Fanning rises to the task with her startling ability to portray Carter’s inner turmoil. She is a young woman losing balance in her own mind. In one bone-chilling early scene, she rehearses her grief along to a scene from Glee, before breaking into a sinister rendition of “Make You Feel My Love”.

The rest of the cast matches up to the high level set by Fanning’s acting masterclass, particularly Colton Ryan, who imbues Roy with a deep and soulful sadness. Chloë Sevigny paints a heartbreaking portrait of grief as Roy’s mother Lynn, especially when struggling to come to turns with the fact Roy has left suicide notes for Carter and for his father, but not for her. Elsewhere there is remarkable work being done by Peter Gerety (The Wire’s Judge Daniel Phelan) as Roy’s distraught grandfather, and Cara Buono (The Sopranos’ Kelli Moltisanti) as Carter’s checked-out mother.

For the most part, the series – available in the UK later this year – plays the story straight, although there are occasional touches of magical realism such as a song-and-dance number set to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, a nod to Carter’s ongoing obsession with Glee. A more divisive artistic choice is the decision to portray Carter and Roy’s many text conversations as if they were speaking face to face. These scenes are shot with a warm glow that suggests they’ve both created a fantasy version of the other, but the result is an impression of intimacy at odds with the facts of the case. Carter’s hundreds of messages telling Roy to kill himself were not delivered face to face, but from the disembodied distance of a phone screen.

‘The Girl from Plainville’ is available to stream in the UK on StarzPlay

If you would like to speak to someone about the issues raised in ‘The Girl From Plainville’ you can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year.

You can also contact Samaritans by emailing jo@samaritans.org. The average response time is 24 hours.

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