Written by: Hannah Tran | March 28th, 2022
The Girl from Plainville (Liz Hannah/Patrick Macmanus, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.
It has been nearly eight years since the world was shaken by a series of text messages between a teen couple in small-town Massachusetts. Overnight, 17-year-old Michelle Carter became one of the most vilified people in the country for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to follow through with his suicide attempt, which he did. What followed was a dramatic court case that ultimately saw a controversial ruling which sentenced Carter to a two-year term for manslaughter.
While public opinion has become more nuanced over time, Hulu’s fictionalized retelling of this couple’s love story and its tragic end plays it mostly safe. Despite a great cast and some surprisingly bizarre directorial choices, The Girl from Plainville lacks perspective. It functions more as a mindless play-by-play of what happened without much analysis into why it happened or what it means on a broader scale.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time a streaming service has attempted to tackle this story. In 2019, HBO released a two-part documentary series, I Love You Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, which covered the same information in a quarter of the time. Unlike this series, that documentary managed to cultivate a nuanced, hard-hitting angle that still felt informative and empathetic to the people involved. With such sensitive subject matter, it’s understandable why The Girl from Plainville is hesitant to take too strong of a stance in any direction. It hardly justifies its length as a slow eight-episode series when it has so little to add to the conversation.
What is most shocking about this case, as the show itself mentions, is the fact that their relationship was almost entirely over the phone. This was the dark side of the digital age. The most surprising decision the creators make is to play out the text conversations as if the characters were face to face. Living in this fantasy world makes the show more cinematic and makes a statement about how their relationship feels real in the characters’ minds, although it can also feel like it’s minimizing a major element of their specific dynamic. This attempt to live in the minds of the characters is taken a step further with two musical numbers, neither of which are particularly impressive or add much to the story. While this play at magical realism is an interesting direction, it ends up feeling a bit uncomfortable and out of place when set against the otherwise straightforward storytelling.
There are moments in which the show does succeed in creating a unique tone and a respectable level of care toward these teenagers. These moments are supported by a number of good performances by its central actors. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit), whose makeup is shockingly accurate but distractingly inconsistent, fits perfectly into the role as the titular character. The real standout, however, is Chloë Sevigny (The True Adventures of Wolfboy) in the role of Conrad’s mother. She provides much of the emotional backbone of the story and effortlessly makes the character feel real and extremely understandable.
These performances make the show more enjoyable, even if the craft often fails them. What begins as a strong look into these teens’ lives quickly loses direction due to some of these failures. For a mostly informational depiction of this tragedy, this manages to be surprisingly sweet and appropriately sad. It doesn’t do much beyond that, however.