In the Hulu limited series “The Girl From Plainville,” there are no definitive answers about the “whys” of what led Massachusetts teen Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) to encourage her boyfriend Conrad Roy (Colton Ryan) to kill himself in July 2014, an act for which she was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served nearly 11-and-a-half months in prison.
Did Carter, an awkward young woman without a lot of friends, encourage Roy’s suicide in the hopes that his death would win her the sympathy of her classmates and opportunities for a more active social life?
In one memorable moment in the miniseries, teen TV drama fan Carter imagines herself and Roy singing and dancing along to “their song,” REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” like her favorite “Glee” couple Rachel and Finn from the Fox series. Was Carter a naïve, sheltered, pampered, and bored girl who liked to fantasize about a more dramatic life? Earlier in the series, she had practiced herself repeating Rachel’s response from the “Glee” episode where Finn died — was Carter so fascinated with the fantasy of this TV tragedy (and the real one that had befallen real-world Rachel and Finn portrayers Lea Michele and Cory Monteith after Monteith’s 2013 overdose) that at least part pf her motivation for egging on Roy’s death was that it would allow her to mirror the fictional and real world “Glee” storyline?
Or maybe, as the miniseries also, and more sympathetically, paints, Michelle Carter was dealing with the effects of mental illness and possibly the medications she was taking, and both of those things could have affected the turns her relationship with Conrad took.
And there were turns. As the hundreds of pages of text interactions between Carter and Roy proved, she didn’t begin their friendship by encouraging his suicide. In fact, she had tried to dissuade him from giving up on his life. He had already made an attempt, and survived only after he was forced to throw up a bottle of pills he had swallowed. Carter wound up in a clinic herself thanks to an anorexia diagnosis, and when she was released, she admitted to him the time had been healing. She suggested a stay at a clinic that would help him address his own issues might prove as helpful to him.
So what had changed? Any of the above, all of the above, or some combination thereof? Again, we get no decisive answer in “The Girl from Plainville,” just as we got no certainty to that question from the endless national media coverage of the “suicide text” court case. But the miniseries does suggest there is more to the story. Not that anything should, or could, mitigate any of the devastating words we know passed between Carter and Roy, particularly 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 things genuine and vulnerable and open-minded, and not simply a story that one young person battling mental illness was the victim of a monster. We’re presented instead with the possibility that two humans were orbiting each other’s mental illnesses.
From the opening episodes, directed by Oscar nominee Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are Alright”), “The Girl from Plainville” makes some narrative choices that could have turned out badly. It can initially be confusing, for instance, to see Michelle and Conrad’s texts play out as imagined IRL conversations, but it becomes a particularly effective storytelling device.
To these two teens, whose relationship existed mostly in text (after their initial meeting while on vacation in Florida, they got together in person back home in Massachusetts only a handful of times), their connection was real. That it was a pivotal interaction for both of them is obvious, but like so much about this tragedy, the motivations, and what it felt like to be so intensely in pain, is a private story that became a very public one. This retelling of a true crime scandal transcends the pop culture frenzy and pithy headlines and attempts to tell a real human story.
The first three episodes of “The Girl From Plainville” 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, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources.