The Girl From Plainville Review: Strong Performances Anchor A Difficult, Emotionally Draining Show

In 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy III died by suicide, inhaling carbon monoxide fumes in his truck while parked in an empty K-mart parking lot. The teenager had a history of mental health issues and had attempted suicide once before. With that in mind, his death was considered at first blush to be a tragic but open and shut case. But some things didn't add up, especially in regard to Michelle Carter, a 17-year-old who claimed to be Conrad's girlfriend, even though Conrad's family had never heard of her. Eventually, after combing through text messages and more, the police built a case against Carter. She eventually went to trial, with the prosecution alleging she manipulated Roy right up until he took his final breath. Carter herself claimed in a text message that Conrad had stepped out of the truck during the act, at which point he called Carter — only for Carter to urge him to get back in and finish what he started. 

This soul-crushingly bleak case is now the subject of the Hulu limited series "The Girl From Plainville," which attempts to explore the minds of both Carter and Roy all while trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless. This is not easily digestible material, and while "The Girl From Plainville" could've gone down an overtly shocking route like so many other true crime-inspired shows, creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus and their team have worked hard to not sensationalize the story. While there are occasional stylish flourishes — including a full-blown fantasy musical number — "The Girl From Plainville" understands that this story is far too desolate to massage into full-blown pop entertainment. And while that's commendable, it also makes "Plainville" almost excruciating to watch at times. 

Harsh reality

What are we to make of Michelle Carter? If you simply hear the basics of this story — her boyfriend was suicidal, and she pushed him to end his life rather than get help — your first reaction might to be to label her a monster and move on. But there's more to the story than that, and the excellent-but-harrowing two-part documentary "I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter" did a fine job presenting the case from multiple points of view. "The Girl From Plainville" attempts to do the same, focusing not just on Michelle and Conrad but also those around them, including Conrad's grieving mother Lynn (Chloë Sevigny, doing strong, subtle work here). 

But as the title suggests, Michelle is the primary focus; the being that everyone and everything else revolves around. Sporting thick eyebrows and a hairline that makes her look almost identical to the real person, Elle Fanning plays Michelle in a way that works its way under your skin. She is painfully awkward and even a little bit creepy at times. She's also consistently lost in her own thoughts and fantasies. She meets Conrad (Colton Ryan) by chance while on vacation in Florida, and while the two are separated by distance (Conrad lives in Massachusetts, Michelle is from Ohio), they begin a lengthy text correspondence.

The series works these text messages into the narrative by having Michelle and Conrad fantasize they're in the same room together, talking. Since their conversations are texts, though, their dialogue is deliberately clumsy — each actor has to wait for the other to finish speaking before they can even think of responding. It adds to the overall eerie feel of the show, which begins to wear you down with its unflinching, stark reality. No matter how many elaborate fantasies Michelle might have, she's always yanked back into the cold, harsh light of the real world, and we're yanked back with her. 

This requires Fanning, who is phenomenal here in the way she seems to fully embody Carter, to go to some rather hysterical places; hysterical as in she must play Michelle as someone coming completely unmoored, reduced to a screaming, crying mess, prone to fits and tantrums. But how much of it is real? How much of it is an act? It's abundantly clear that Michelle is mentally unwell, but it is nearly impossible for those around her to figure out what's going on inside her head. Only Conrad seems to "get" her — or so she thinks. But despite Michelle's proclamations of undying love, the show continually underlines the fact that she and Conrad really didn't know each other all that way. As Conrad, Ryan nails the aggressive loneliness that forever threatens to destroy his character. He flies off the handle at times, but he is inherently sympathetic — and hopelessly doomed. 

A heartbreaking show

Part of what makes "The Girl From Plainville" such a grueling watch is that there are no easy answers, and the answers that are provided leave us cold and shocked. Again: if we could simply paint Michelle as a psychopathic monster we might feel secure in the knowledge that this story was an abnormality; a tragedy, yes — but still a tragedy with a clear explanation. But that's not the case. None of this is to say "The Girl From Plainville" is overly sympathetic to Carter, nor does it try to absolve her of any wrongdoing. It's abundantly clear that she thrives on attention; that she's prone to bold lies all in the name of garnering sympathy. And Conrad Roy may have been suicidal, but would he have gone through with things had Carter not given him that final push? 

This case fascinates as much as it horrifies, but it also leaves a sick, coppery taste in your mouth and a horrible pit in your stomach. It's the tragedy of it all that really got to me. The tragedy that these two painfully lonely people were drawn to each other, and that it all ended with one of their deaths. As if there were cold, cruel Lovecraftian forces out there in the universe, pulling them together for the sake of annihilation. 

I felt my heart breaking a little as I watched this; my spirit being slowly crushed. My mind reeled at the horror of it all. With how that horror has now become entertainment. With how I crave this sort of entertainment and then feel horrible for craving it. The show does an excellent, respectful job presenting all of this, and I commend everyone here for the work they've done. But "The Girl From Plainville" might be too disturbing for its own good. There is undeniable cruelty to this story. The cruelty that fate, or whatever you want to call it, would put these two destructive people on each other's path, like nature bringing together multiple storm fronts to form a perfect storm that leaves nothing but wreckage in its wake. 

"The Girl From Plainville" premieres on Hulu on March 29, 2022.