A Dark Look at Modern Teen Culture Roots True-Crime Retelling of The Girl from Plainville

The Girl from Plainville. Available March 29 on Hulu.

The Girl from Plainville is being billed as a true-crime miniseries account of the peculiar 2014 suicide-by-manipulation of a Massachusetts teenager named Conrad Roy III, and the resulting manslaughter trial of his girlfriend, Michelle Carter, who was charged even though she was miles away in another town at the time he died. And it’s a good story, well-told.

But the centerpiece of the show is something else again. We don’t reach it until the third hour, when Michelle has been arrested and learns one of the conditions of her bail is the end, at least temporarily, of her on-line existence: no computer and especially no cell phone or texting. “What am I supposed to do?” she gasps in mute disbelief. Replies her attorney, his own incredulity stretching in another direction: “Read a book?”

At heart, the riveting The Girl from Plainville isn’t the story of a murder but a bewildered look at the gnarled and bewildering relationship between teenagers and their phones, a culture in which nearly every idiotic and incoherent word is recorded for posterity and passion is measured in emojis. Though Michelle and Coco (as his friends called him) lived just a short distance apart and regularly pledged their cyberlove for one another, their liaison was almost entirely electronic, occasional phone calls sandwiched between so many text messages that, when cops printed them all out , they filled eight cardboard file boxes.

The story the texts told was unsettling, particularly those in the days just before Coco’s death, as the teenagers took up a recurring subject that fascinated them both: his suicide. They’d been chatting about it for weeks. (Her: “What about hanging yourself or stabbing yourself?” Him: “Carbon monoxide or helium gas. I want to deprive myself of oxygen.”) But a week or so before it happened, their conversation took on a frightening urgency. “You better not be bullshitting me and saying you’re gonna do this and then purposely get caught,” Michelle warned him. “YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF!”

On the night Coco died, he pulled his truck into a parking lot, shut all the windows, and turned on a motorized water pump to fill the vehicle with carbon monoxide. Twice he spoke with Michelle, lengthy conversations of more than 40 minutes each. When they were over, Coco was dead. Unlike text messages, phone calls don’t leave a record of their content. But a text Michelle sent another friend did.

“I could have stopped him,” Michelle wrote. “I was on the phone with him and he got out of the car because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in. I could of stopped him but I fucking did it. All I had to say was I love you.”

Police take the message both seriously and literally. “With due respect, those are fucked-up texts,” the lead investigator tells the chief. Michelle’s friends, who thought she was a show-off and a drama queen, are less impressed. “People will say anything to get a like,” one shrugs.

Based on a story from Esquire magazine, The Girl from Plainville is neither the first nor the most incisive television account of the case. Though it does a reasonably good job of recounting both the tale of the suicide and the thorny legal issues it raised—is encouraging somebody to kill themselves really a criminal act or just a reprehensible and even demented (but legal) form of free speech?— Plainville is a drama and its strong suit is its characters. For a better brief on the legal issues, hunt down HBO’s superb 2019 documentary I Love You, Now Die.

But when it comes to unraveling the tangles of digital adolescent psychology, or at least observing it lucidly, The Girl from Plainville is a better bet. It portrays Michelle (played brilliantly by the emerging star Elle Fanning) as an emotional vampire who greedily appropriates Coco’s fascination with suicide when he’s alive and his family’s fractured grief when he dies. She’s also an untethered fantasist whose roadmap of her own life consists mostly of imagining herself in scenes from the high-school musical melodrama Glee. The show’s most chilling scene is one in which, to play her self-assigned role as the martyred girlfriend, she stares into a mirror while mimicing a grieving tribute to a departed Glee character. Are her feelings real, or plagiarized? Does she know? Or care?

Fractured identity and self-deception are themes that run throughout The Girl From Plainville. The doomed Coco (Colton Ryan, Homeland is so alienated from his own life that he longs for a checklist that would tell him how to live it. His mother (Chloe Sevigny) seems to have been relying on one herself. (“They told us to get him a shrink, we get him a shrink. The shrink says get him some pills, we get him some pills. What were we supposed to do, chain him to the fucking radiator?”) Prosecutor Katie Rayburn (Aya Cash, You’re the Worst) isn’t really sure Michelle committed a crime, but is thrilled by the prospect of setting a legal precedent. After pinpointing a bunch of falsehoods in Michelle’s texts, Rayburn declares: “You know who lies? Guilty people.” Retorts another prosecutor: “You know who lies? Teenagers.” In The Girl from Plainville, you know who lies? Everybody.

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