The Daughter of Plainville, TV Review – Elle Fanning is Exceptional as a Violent Narcissist

” The time has come. . . You can’t go on living like this. . . You just have to do it. Could these words, sent by SMS, be likened to homicide? The recipient was an 18-year-old boy with a history of clinical depression who committed suicide shortly thereafter. The sender was the girl who claimed to love him. But as one lawyer put it, Michelle Carter was not compassionately witnessing a suicide; she “directed” him.

Plainville’s daughter is an eight-part dramatization of the real circumstances surrounding the death of Conrad Roy III – and the groundbreaking court case where Carter was convicted of manslaughter in 2017 for her role in encouraging her reluctant boyfriend to kill himself.

Unsurprisingly, this disturbing story, which touches on timely issues ranging from the dangerous distancing effect of digital interactions to the pernicious romanticization of mental illness and demonstrative grief, has already sparked plenty of debate and coverage, including an acclaimed HBO documentary in 2019.

But Hulu’s hard-hitting new series (streaming on Starzplay in the UK) doesn’t look like a superfluous or cynical attempt to extract more content from a tragedy. Instead, it offers a believable, complex, and penetrating insight into the mindset of two troubled young adults.

Chloë Sevigny (center) plays the mother of troubled Conrad (Colton Ryan) © Hulu

Conrad and Michelle are both lost and alone when they meet in Florida while on vacation with their respective families. Finding ease and solace in each other’s company, the two begin an intense and unhealthy virtual correspondence, rarely meeting in person despite living within hours of each other in suburban Massachusetts.

While a relationship that largely takes place on phone screens might not seem conducive to gripping television, the show makes up for these dramatic limitations of the tale with a textured characterization and compelling central performances (not to mention the rarest feat: authentic adolescent dialogue).

Colton Ryan plays Conrad with thoughtful sensibility, portraying him as a lovable, shy boy with a crumbly build that’s out of step with the gruff, gritty masculinity of his father and grandfather. Like her mother Lynn, Chloë Sevigny brilliantly captures the nervousness born of unfathomable grief and nagging guilt.

But the main draw here is the exceptional Elle Fanning in the challenging role of Michelle. Though uncomfortably convincing in moments that showcase the violent narcissism that drives Michelle to exploit Conrad for her own vanity, Fanning is equally determined to rise to the challenge of explaining, if not exonerating, it. The complexity of her performance allows us to see Michelle as a teenager completely ill-equipped to deal with her desperate spirit.

Perhaps, the series provocatively suggests, Michelle’s callousness and pity are contiguous, not contradictory. If she voraciously feasts on the pain, care, and empathy that comes from the death she is complicit in, is it because she is so starved of self-confidence and self-esteem? When she co-opts an elegiac speech from the TV series Joy like hers, does she turn out to be a calculating sociopath or a reckless, delusional dreamer unable to separate fiction from reality? Convincingly, nothing is plain and simple in Plainville.

★★★★☆

Airing on Starzplay on July 10. Available in full on Hulu in the US

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