In the Hulu limited series “The Girl From Plainville,” there are no definitive answers to the “why” of what led Massachusetts teenager Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) to cheer on her boyfriend Conrad Roy ( Colton Ryan) to commit suicide in July 2014, an act for which she was convicted of manslaughter and served nearly 11.5 months in prison.
Did Carter, an awkward young woman without many friends, encourage Roy’s suicide in hopes that his death would earn him sympathy from his classmates and opportunities for a more active social life?
In a memorable moment from the miniseries, teen TV fan Carter imagines herself and Roy singing and dancing to “their song,” REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” like her favorite couple. “Glee” Rachel and Finn from the Fox series. Was Carter a naive, sheltered, pampered, bored girl who liked to fantasize about a more dramatic life? Earlier in the series, she had practiced rehearsing Rachel’s response from the episode “Glee” where Finn died – was Carter so fascinated by the fantasy of this TV tragedy (and the real one that had happened? shot over real-world Rachel and Finn portrayals Lea Michele and Cory Monteith after Monteith’s 2013 overdose) that at least part of his motivation for encouraging Roy’s death was that it would allow him to mirror the fictional storyline and real of “Glee”?
Or maybe, like the miniseries too, and more sympathetically, painted, Michelle Carter was coping with the effects of mental illness and maybe the medications she was on, and those two things could have affected the turns that her relationship with Conrad took.
And there were turns. As the hundreds of pages of textual interactions between Carter and Roy prove, she didn’t start their friendship by encouraging his suicide. In fact, she had tried to talk him out of giving up his life. He had already made an attempt and only survived after being forced to vomit up a bottle of pills he had swallowed. Carter ended up in a clinic herself thanks to a diagnosis of anorexia, and when she was released she admitted to him that it had been time to heal. She suggested that a stay at a clinic that would help with his own issues might prove just as helpful for him.
So what had changed? Any of the above, all of the above, or a combination of these? Again, we get no decisive answer in “La fille de Plainville”, just as we get no certainty to this question of endless national media coverage of the “suicide text” court case. But the miniseries suggests there’s more to the story. Nothing should or could dilute the devastating words we know passed between Carter and Roy, especially on what would be the last day of his life.
But if nothing else, the series at least gives us some things to consider. Some authentic, vulnerable, open-minded things, and not just a story that a young person struggling with mental illness fell victim to a monster. Instead, we are presented with the possibility that two humans are orbiting each other’s mental illnesses.
From the first episodes, directed by Oscar nominee Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are Fine”), “The Girl from Plainville” makes some narrative choices that could have gone wrong. It can be confusing at first, for example, to watch Michelle and Conrad’s texts unfold like imaginary IRL conversations, but it becomes a particularly effective storytelling device.
For these two teenagers, whose relationship existed mostly in text (after they first met while vacationing in Florida, they only met in person a handful of times back home in Massachusetts), their connection was real. That this was a crucial interaction for both of them is obvious, but like so much else in this tragedy, the motivations and what was felt so intensely in the pain is a private story that has become very public. This tale of a real crime scandal transcends pop culture frenzy and headlines and attempts to tell a real human story.
The first three episodes of “The Girl From Plainville” will premiere on Hulu on Tuesday, March 29. The series is created by Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a free, confidential, 24/7 service that can provide people in a suicidal crisis or in emotional distress, or those around them, with a local support, information and resources.